BMCR 2003.03.12

Princes and Political Cultures: The New Tiberian Senatorial Decrees

, Princes and political cultures : the new Tiberian senatorial decrees. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. 195 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472112309. $49.50.

Greg Rowe’s study of early imperial politics will be eagerly received by all historians and classicists whose interests have been aroused by the monumental inscriptions relating to the honoring of Germanicus and the trial of Cn. Piso, unearthed in southern Spain during the last twenty years.1 R.’s focus is on what these (and other) documents have to say about the responses of various constituencies of early imperial society to the Emperor and the imperial household. As he states, his aim is to use the sources to reconstruct a dynamic picture of public life and political culture, to create a map of the complex patterns of communication and initiative behind the public responses to the succession (66). R. unpacks a culture of loyalism, a universal loyalism which was the product of a number of separate political cultures (individual chapters treat the Senate, the Equestrian order, the urban plebs, political communities of Italy such as Pisae, Greek cities such as Mytilene, and the Roman army). R.’s aim is to explain how a universal consensus among such diverse groups was constructed (175). Equally important, he attempts to show what each of these constituencies had to gain from slavishly advertising their loyalty to the domus Augusta. As will become clear, I have certain reservations about the overall picture of Roman politics that emerges, but Rowe is a stimulating guide and all interested in the early empire will want to engage with his constantly fresh ideas.2

R. demonstrates powerfully that politics continued, albeit in new forms, in the new world of dynastic monarchy, and he shows throughout that strong and vibrant political cultures existed among the different constituencies of imperial society. Indeed, R. shows that the presence of autocracy in some ways increased the political presence of, for instance, the Senate, which was able to extend its visibility and authority in new directions precisely due to its servility. Likewise, the Equestrian order achieved new levels of visibility and cohesion through informal expressions of loyalty which, in certain ways, constituted the process of its becoming an order. Even the urban plebs extended its presence, R. suggests, through informal acts of expression and protest which came to be recognized by, for instance, those who formulated the wording of the Piso decree. Of course, as R. points out, such increased visibility for various constituencies came at the expense of the Res Publica and its institutions. A politics of consensus, based on a network of public acts and a system of public communications (including honorific decrees and theater acclamations etc.) came to replace the old political structure that had been focused on the Republic (60). Constituencies, such as the citizens of Pisae, realized the advantages to be gained through by-passing the Res Publica and going straight to the Princeps. As R. says, in his discussion of Pisae, “the project is to understand how the citizen became a subject” (103). Groups which were sufficiently organized to initiate or to report collective honors to the Princeps won recognition for themselves and so defined themselves as imperial subjects, with a distinct role in imperial society. The picture that emerges from R.’s account is the same as that which emerges from the Tabula Siarensis or the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre: a society in which all the different elements were united in their enthusiasm for imperial rule and the benefits it brought. What Rowe adds above all is a clearer account of what each group gained by such slavish loyalty, as well as a better understanding of the mechanisms which allowed such enthusiasm to be expressed.

Before drawing some broad conclusions, it may be useful to offer a summary of some of the most important points in each chapter. If I express reservations about some of the points raised, this reflects the stimulating nature of many of the arguments. After an introductory exposition of the major inscriptions which will be the focus for the first half of the book, R. begins his discussion with the Senate. Here R. has two major points. First he attempts to show that the tribunicia potestas had “little or nothing to do with the plebs or popular politics” (43). Rowe’s self-consciously “revisionist interpretation” (54) sees the tribunicia potestas as above all a tool through which the Princeps could manage the Senate, used with no regard to its political connotations. R. may overstate his case somewhat here, and the symbolic and ideological importance of this most popular of powers was surely of fundamental importance to Augustus and his successors as they attempted to legitimate the new regime. R. could easily have shown the functional importance of this power in managing the Senate without excluding all of its popular associations. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly (and more relevant to the overall project of the book), R. shows how the Senate, by issuing honorific decrees, came to usurp a legislative function from the people. By being publicized, these decrees assume a normative force as all know that the contents are the emperor’s will. R.’s reading of senatorial honors is in general sympathetic, attempting to understand what it gained through the process: “The Senate serves as an imperial mouthpiece. Still, paradoxically, the Senate achieved many of the judicial, electoral, and legislative powers that its republican champions, men like Cicero, had aspired to, at the price of libertas” (42-3). But of course we know from Tacitus how valued this libertas was, and it is perhaps interesting that R. does not discuss certain senatorial decrees of thanksgiving after imperial murders, offerings of thanks which call forth some of Tacitus’ most bitter indignation (e.g. Annals 14.64). One wonders if R. is not shifting the pendulum too far in his attempt to explain and understand the new political culture of the Senate in the early Empire.

Next is a chapter on the equester ordo, perhaps the strongest in the whole book. R. focuses on the practical question of how the equestrian order rendered corporate decisions and stresses informal aspects of equestrian ceremony, such as theater acclamations which were then formalized through their being described as expressions of the equester ordo in documents such as the Piso inscription (71). R. identifies as fundamental aspects of equestrian political culture centralization around a core of civic institutions (many of which demanded presence in Rome), the appearance of being a “cohesive class apart” (72), and the focus upon the imperial household, with the emperor granting privileges to equestrians and receiving recognition from the equestrian order in return, “a crudely simple exchange of benefactions for honors” (75). For R., the matter of equestrian status remains a live issue, the result of a tangled set of overlapping categories” (73), unable to be reconciled within a tidy definition. Indeed one might go as far as to say that to an extent being an equestrian was something one performed, with participation in, for example, theater acclamations serving to compensate for the heterogeneous nature of the order (cf. 76). R. shows, then, how the equestrians presented themselves as a self-consciously loyal order and in return acquired recognition, prestige, honors and a place in early imperial society. Of course, problems remain in our understanding of the equester ordo. For instance, one might wonder through what mechanisms the equestrians decided upon approaching Claudius to be their ambassador to petition the consuls to carry Augustus’ corpse (cf. 81). The hypothesis of theater acclamations does not really resolve such issues.

R. next discusses the urban plebs as a political actor. R. expresses dissatisfaction with accounts focused on euergetism or stressing the levitas of popular emperors. Instead he aims to look at examples of plebeian expression, focusing on informal politics (including demonstrations) and on occasions when the plebs or elements of it signed its name on inscriptions etc. R. nicely shows how informal politics is acknowledged in, for instance, the Piso inscription as an acceptable form of political expression (assuming that it was willing to be guided in an acceptable manner). And again, we see that by offering honors, the plebs (or sections thereof) received rewards and recognition of its status as a privileged group. R. speaks well of “the delicacy of the equipoise that was styled consensus between Senate, equester ordo, and plebs urbana” (101). But one wonders in this chapter if the focus on the plebs as it presents itself or is presented in the documentary evidence is not somewhat misleading. The Senate is, of course, in its formulation of the Piso decree negotiating deep conflicts that were still brewing in the city of Rome (and across the Empire). The plebs might be praised for its loyalty, but our literary accounts suggest a very different story. One finishes the chapter unsure whether R.’s approach, focusing on the consensus produced through the publication of official documents, really helps explain our understanding of the plebs as a political actor better than the approaches of Veyne and Yavetz whom he (implicitly) criticizes.

With chapter four the focus moves to the citizen communities of Italy, focusing on the decrees issued by Pisae following the deaths of Gaius and Lucius. As ever, R. makes many interesting points. For instance, he shows that, while the decree for Lucius imitates and incorporates a decree of the Roman Senate, the decree for Gaius was composed locally and independently (114-5). With this decree, the relation is purely between subject and monarch, with no role for the Senate or the institutions of the Res Publica (118). As R. says, the Italians seem to have cared little for the traditions of Rome, even though, as with the Lucius decree, they could have made use of a senatorial decree if they wished (119). There is also good discussion of the background to the Gaius decree, relating it to the dynastic crisis of 4 AD. Again, the dominant picture is of a culture of loyalism, mutually advantageous to the Italian communities, the Roman Senate (though this could be by-passed) and above all the Emperor (111).

Chapter five moves to the Greek cities, focusing primarily on Mytilene and various dedications to its benefactors Theophanes and Potamon. Rowe brings out the civic and personal advancement that awaited those who supported Rome (133). By piggybacking on the imperial dynasty local elites reinforced their own position and once more a mutually advantageous expression of consensus was achieved. Again one feels an unease that this careful attention to official documents offers a somewhat distorted picture of Greek politics. Rowe speaks of the inscriptions as telling the “story of the revolution of consciousness that came when the Greek city discovered that its fate could be determined by the deeds of a single citizen” (125-6). This nice phrase, “revolution of consciousness,” masks the reality of Roman rule colluding with the propertied classes in the Greek cities to suppress democracy, the account of which furnishes some of the most compelling pages of de Ste Croix’s Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, a work not cited by Rowe. Amid all the discussion of consensus and loyalty and self-advancement, we have little notion that the loyalty is offered to secure the domination of the local propertied class. Doubtless Rowe is aware of all this and his focus on what can be learned from expressions of loyalty is deliberate and offers its own rewards. But more is needed to deal adequately with the “political culture” of the Greek cities in this period. A few words reminding the reader that feelings towards Rome outside of the local elites may have been very different would have been welcome (and evidence is not lacking, for instance the support for the false-Neros).

The final constituency treated by R. is the Roman army. Once more, we have a group sufficiently organized to initiate and report collective honors and in return able to win recognition as a distinct entity in Roman imperial society (162). The army did this through its participatory political culture, based around contiones, and, in return for acclamation of members of the imperial house, donatives were expected and received (161). Of course, the other side of this participatory political culture was the potential for discontent and mutiny, anxieties about which can be seen in the Germanicus inscriptions alongside the dedications of military loyalty. R. does look at the mutinies at the start of Tiberius’ reign and has good things to say about the publication of the decree concerning Piso in the winter quarters of all the legions and of how the Senate’s rhetoric was in part designed to appeal to and control the soldiers (165-68).

Some general criticisms have probably emerged from the above summary. In particular, I suggest that the stress on official documents has led to a picture of early imperial society with the cracks somewhat painted over. The sources R. discusses are keen to mask tensions, of which many were apparent, between the death of Augustus and the death of Germanicus. If the official documents paint a picture of consensus, the reality was surely very different. R. does an outstanding job of showing how this consensus was formed and what each constituency gained from participating in it. And he unpacks excellently the networks and communication systems which enabled this consensus to function in practice. But he does not remind the reader firmly enough that not all participated in this consensus and that it was ultimately fragile and indeed could well have broken down on several occasions during the reign of Tiberius alone. The tensions that lie beneath the official picture of consensus and which the Tiberian documents so skillfully negotiate need to be emphasized more sharply. Cracks do surface in R.’s book: we have noted mention of the mutinies in the army chapter and of plebeian anger in the chapter on the urban plebs. And in the chapter on Pisae, R. briefly mentions the false Agrippa Postumus at Cosa with an army of the disaffected from Italian municipia (116). But in general it is the official account of imperial society which prevails in this book. Everyone offers loyalty and the only motive for doing so is self-advancement. Ultimately this seems an odd way to see Roman society as operating. Perhaps some consideration of class issues would have sharpened R.’s analysis of early Roman politics. As it is, the discussion, and indeed the very organization of the book, is informed by an assumption that at Rome the ordines are the valid category for thinking through Roman society, even though that leads to a discussion in which senators and equites are treated as groups with very different interests, although in fact their class interests were surely similar. One suspects that ultimately the consensus that is expressed is driven by those whose propertied interests are being maintained thanks to the imperial system, whether senators, equestrians or the propertied classes in Italy and the Greek cities. The plebs and the army might join in this consensus if their interests were met, but they were also ready to protest, or mutiny or overthrow the Emperor should they decide that this was in their interests.

The book is in general well-presented and, to his credit, R. in general avoids overwhelming the reader with footnotes or excessive bibliography. As a rule, he is happy to point the reader to one or two crucial articles. There are a few possibly misleading mistakes (e.g. p. 45 suggesting that Germanicus and the younger Drusus both did and did not hold the quaestorship; p. 51 line 10 “Tiberius” should be “Nero”; p. 99 the Latin “irrumpentis in curiam turbae” is attached to the wrong part of the English text; p. 158 n. 10 “nomen” is omitted from the Valerius Maximus quotation). This is a book which will often be consulted for its take on a particular passage — as such, the lack of an index locorum is unfortunate. This reader would have found such an index more useful than the appendix on the careers of the prince’s “personal statuses.” Also, while the Latin and Greek texts of many of the most important documents discussed are given, translations are embedded in the text of the chapters (and not all of the text is always translated). It would be useful, especially for those new to this material, to have these translations alongside the original texts. But to end on a positive note: this is a book which everyone who works on the history and literature of the period will want to consult. R.’s book is full of interesting and original ideas. He thinks deeply about how the mechanisms of Roman politics operated. He has an eye for spotting historical problems and suggests constantly interesting solutions. Not all will be persuaded by the overall vision of imperial politics that emerges, but all will have their preconceptions challenged.


1. For the publication of the Tabula Siarensis, see J. González and F. Fernández, Iura 32, 1981(1984)1-36. See now Roman Statutes ed. M.H. Crawford, BICS supplement 64, London 1996, number 37 ( Tabula Siarensis and Tabula Hebana). For the publication of the Piso inscription, see W. Eck, A. Caballos and F. Fernández, Das senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre, Vestigia 48, Munich 1996. Useful collections of essays on the new inscriptions can be found in J. González and J. Arce eds., Estudios sobre la Tabula Siarensis, Madrid 1988, and, on the Piso inscription, in the special edition of AJP 120.1 (1999). Among other bibliography, particularly noteworthy is M.T. Griffin, “The Senate’s Story,” JRS 87(1997) 249-53.

2. The book will probably be seen by many as complementing Clifford Ando’s Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (California 2000), a study which ranges more widely in time and scope than Rowe but which explores many of the same issues from, at times, a similar perspective.