BMCR 2012.12.67

The Republic in Danger: Drusus Libo and the Succession of Tiberius

, The Republic in Danger: Drusus Libo and the Succession of Tiberius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. ix, 265. ISBN 9780199601745 $99.00 (hc).


Tacitus wrote at the end of his account of Cn. Piso’s trial that “all the greatest matters are ambiguous, inasmuch as some people hold any form of hearsay as confirmed, others turn truth into its converse, and each swells among posterity” (3.19.2).1 Tacitus’ thoughts on the difficulties of recording an episode obscured by time and rumor apply equally well to the period of history Pettinger tackles in this work. Pettinger seeks to clarify the years extending from Augustus’ adoption of Tiberius and Agrippa Postumus in AD 4 to the death of M. Scribonius Drusus Libo in AD 16, which he sees as pivotal in the formation of the Roman Principate. Given all that these years encompass, it is hard to argue otherwise. Using the trial and death of Drusus Libo as his anchor, Pettinger carefully reevaluates the political events from AD 4 to AD 16, including the adoptions of Tiberius and Agrippa Postumus, the deaths of Gaius and Lucius Caesar, the accession of Tiberius, the murder of Agrippa Postumus, and the revolt of Clemens, the Pseudo– Agrippa amongst others. While no reader will agree with all of Pettinger’s interpretations, overall he sheds much light on the period.

Pettinger’s work, in my opinion, joins a host of others in recent years that question what could be considered the orthodoxy on Roman history in the first century AD. This orthodoxy reads Augustus’ creation of the Principate as a necessary institution overseen by a wise and just ruler, which Romans, both contemporary and of succeeding generations, overwhelmingly welcomed for its peaceful and prosperous effects. I include such writers as Dylan Sailor, Daniel Kapust, and Sam Wilkinson in the category of recent scholars who are willing to challenge this orthodoxy and to see a more radical critique of the Principate by the Romans and their historians.2 Pettinger lays down the gauntlet on page one, where he challenges the modern interpretation of the Principate as a force for good that faced little resistance; his evidence for arguing that the Principate did meet with resistance is the case of Drusus Libo. Pettinger ultimately reads Drusus Libo as a partisan of Clemens, the Pseudo–Agrippa, and as a leader in the plot to restore the Republic.

Pettinger devotes his first two chapters to the trial and death of Drusus Libo. The first chapter presents the sources and the circumstance of the trial and charges; the second chapter addresses Drusus Libo’s inability to acquire an advocate, his treatment as a revolutionary, and the results of the investigation following his death, namely damnatio memoriae and a public thanksgiving. In these chapters, Pettinger disputes Tacitus’ portrayal of Drusus Libo as a foolish young man easily led astray. He is successful in doing so, and thereby provides an alternative reading of events, which show Drusus Libo as a revolutionary. Pettinger achieves this by putting Drusus Libo in perspective with others accused of treason in Rome’s recent past, including Catiline. This argument is furthered not just by focusing on the actions of Drusus Libo and his accusers, as Tacitus tends to do, but on the serious and determined reaction of the princeps and senate.

In chapter three, Pettinger begins what may be called a sustained flashback, begining in AD 4 and continuing for the rest of the book until catching up at the end with the conspiracy of Clemens in AD 16. Through chapters three and four, Pettinger does an exemplary job of explaining why Augustus adopted Agrippa Postumus (to better control him) and later made him an abdicatus (disinherited, yet still subject to Augustus’ patria potestas). Chapter five contains a valuable discussion of libel and maiestas as well as the sedition of L. Aemilius Paullus.

Chapter six (Augustus’ Final Arrangements) is indicative of Pettinger’s process: he focuses on a specific problem, e.g. Agrippa’s relegation, by citing the relevant primary sources and then gives the broader context of political events (103–107). Chapter seven reveals, however, some weaknesses in Pettinger’s analysis. Pettinger is very eager to demonstrate that Julia the Younger was guilty of stuprum, not adultery, and to emphasize that Silanus merely lost Augustus’ friendship. This much is acceptable, but Pettinger’s interpretation of Ovid’s exile does not seem to follow. Pettinger argues that Ovid was exiled because he witnessed “Julia in a compromised position” (129). This does not explain why Ovid would be exiled for seeing something, while Silanus, who engaged in stuprum with Julia, was only dismissed from friendship. The latter surely seems the more grievous act.

Chapters eight and nine pick up the narrative in AD 11 and carry it to AD 14, while addressing the rise of Tiberius to an equal share of the imperial power and his subsequent hesitation to assert that power publicly. Pettinger dates the attempted rescue of Agrippa Postumus to AD 12 rather than AD 8 as Levick does (138–140).3 Conversely, he dates the condemnation of Cassius Severus to AD 8 following Jerome, which some scholars date to AD 12 following Dio. 4 Pettinger agrees with Suetonius ( Tib. 25.1) in attributing Tiberius’ hesitation to his fear of the dangers circulating in AD 14, specifically the threat posed by Clemens and Drusus Libo (167–68).

The murder of Agrippa is dealt with in chapter ten. While most studies of Agrippa’s death focus on who was responsible, and Pettinger does so himself, he emphasizes the important point that Tiberius’ unwillingness to set the facts straight led to a proliferation of rumors and distrust that profoundly impacted the beginning of Tiberius’ regime. There was a cost to following Sallustius Crispus’ advice to balancing the accounts only to one and not to the public.

Chapter eleven addresses Germanicus and the mutinies following Tiberius’ accession. Pettinger generally portrays Germanicus as loyal and supportive of Tiberius, which he certainly was, and he astutely points out that third parties tried to divide them, but Pettinger seems unwilling to address the conflicts between them, which Tacitus highlights through the first two books of the Annales, particularly the apparent contrast in their personalities.

Pettinger closes his book with a chapter on the years AD 14–16, focusing particularly on the relationship between Drusus Libo and Clemens, the Pseudo–Agrippa. Here Pettinger makes some of his most salient points, including the controversial, but in my opinion convincing, argument that the conspiracy of Clemens was not to culminate in the appointment of Drusus Libo as princeps but rather in the abolition of the Principate. Pettinger suggests that if Drusus Libo had merely taken Tiberius’ place, then Germanicus and his legions would have marched on Rome. Whereas if the Principate were abolished, then Germanicus would have acted upon the Republican sympathies he and his father, Drusus the Elder, were reputed to possess.

Some will choose to question Pettinger’s closing assertion; I do not. Rather there are two critiques to Pettinger’s study I wish to address. The lesser of the two is his treatment of Tacitus. Pettinger seems to have it out for Tacitus, who portrays Drusus Libo more as a foolish young man than a serious threat, a point Pettinger is determined to disprove. This alone is not problematic; Tacitus could simply be wrong in this case. But Pettinger closes on the last two pages with statements like “By not grounding Tiberius’ Principate in Augustus’ Principate, Tacitus fails to comprehend Tiberius’ approach to power; we find ourselves reading Suetonius and Dio with relief!” (216–17). A few sentences later he adds, “Indeed, Syme’s belief that Tacitus relied heavily on the acta senatus seems to me unlikely,” (217). This then seems to leave gaps in his argumentation, as he seems unaware that Tacitus also attributes Republican sentiments to the Elder Drusus and Germanicus ( Ann. 1.33.2, 2.82.2), for Pettinger only cites Suetonius (201 n. 27). I think this is rather unfortunate as Tacitus has much to say that aligns with Pettinger’s broader point, that is, the Principate was a corrupt system of government that did not protect the libertas of its citizens.

The second serious critique is at the foundation of Pettinger’s thesis. Pettinger bases his argument for viewing Drusus Libo as more than a misguided youth on the notion that he represented a political party. There is evidence for this in Drusus Libo’s political and family connections, which Pettinger emphasizes throughout and particularly well in Appendix 1 (A Prosopography of M. Scribonius Drusus Libo) and Appendix 2 (Family Trees). That Drusus Libo could count Pompeius Magnus as an ancestor is an important point in arguing that Drusus Libo was working to restore the Republic. However, Pettinger also ties Drusus Libo to the faction that supported Gaius Caesar in opposition to Tiberius. Pettinger throughout wants to transfer the supporters of Gaius, who died in 4 AD, to other opponents of Tiberius and ultimately to Drusus Libo and Clemens. His statement on p. 211 is characteristic: “These men, [elite supporters of Clemens and Drusus Libo] whose names remain unknown to us, stand at the centre of this reconstruction. They had supported Gaius, then Aemilius Paullus, and finally Agrippa.” Yet Pettinger never explains why this should be the case or what evidence we have for it. There does not seem to be a compelling reason to view the supporters of Gaius Caesar as some coherent party that would continue to exist over ten years after his death. Moreover, there seems little argument for why the supporters of Gaius Caesar would want to join Drusus Libo in restoring the Republic. One of Pettinger’s virtues is his willingness to read what James C. Scott calls the “hidden transcript”,5 that form of resistance which lurks beneath the official record. However, Pettinger at times seems willing to read too much into the hidden transcript, such as in the matter of who supported Drusus Libo. This is especially so, since one does not need to prove this point to argue that Drusus Libo was in cahoots with Clemens and wanted to restore the Republic.

One could point out a number of errata and smaller quibbles. There are several spelling mistakes, particularly in the notes, such as AD for ad (p. 22 n.74), un for und (p. 144 n. 42), “transactiong” for “transacting” (p. 145 line 21), “sate” for “state” (p. 214 line 1), and adrgatio for adrogatio (p. 223 n. 23), among others. Further points could be added, such as his failing to acknowledge Josephus when discussing the assassination of Caligula on p. 214.

Yet in the end, these critiques do not win out over the positive contribution Pettinger here offers. The writing is enjoyable to read; the chapters are succinct and broken up into coherent subsections. Pettinger provides three helpful appendices along with a bibliography and index. Moreover, his rigorous examination of a nearly inscrutable period of Roman history and his willingness to challenge entrenched assumptions and to offer bold reinterpretations make this a refreshing work of scholarship.


1. The translation is from A.J. Woodman, Tacitus: The Annals. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004.

2. Dylan Sailor, Writing and Empire in Tacitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Daniel J. Kapust, Republicanism, Rhetoric, and Roman Political Thought: Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Sam Wilkinson, Republicanism during the Early Roman Empire. London: Continuum, 2012.

3. Barbara M. Levick, Tiberius the Politician. London: Routledge, 1976, rev. 1999. p. 61.

4. R.A. Bauman, Impietas in Principem: A Study of Treason against the Roman Emperor with Special Reference to the First Century AD ( Munich: C.H. Beck, 1974), pp. 29–30.

5. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.