Version classiqueVersion mobile

Cassius Dion : nouvelles lectures

Valérie Fromentin
Estelle Bertrand
Michèle Coltelloni-Trannoy
et al.

Penser la πολιτεία romaine

Cassius Dio on Imperial Legitimacy, from the Antonines to the Severans

Clifford Ando

Texte intégral


  • 1 In the essay, I have made frequent use of Cary’s translation, but I have also frequently adapted (...)

1Even in its surviving form, the History of Cassius Dio constitutes the only extant narrative of Rome that covers the long history of monarchic power from its establishment under Augustus to the radical and violent reorientation of its basis under Severus and his successors1. Remarkably, it may well have been the only such narrative ever written. Whatever its difficulty of access, it therefore behooves us to consider in detail how Dio understands the structures of imperial politics to have operated and, in particular, how, and in response to what factors, he believes them to have changed. Two circumstances complicate this project from the very start. First, for much of the period in question, Dio’s own text does not survive. One therefore depends largely on the epitome of Xiphilinus, with all the distortions that this imposes on Dio’s argument, priorities and language. Second, Dio himself thematizes features of imperial politics that made political deportment, the writing of history and, by implication, the analysis of narrative exceptionally precarious activities. For all that, Dio also advances a clear system of evaluation, in which the legitimacy of emperors must be judged in light of their conduct in office and depends in no way on the events and processes that led to their accession to power. The extant text suggests, if no more than that, that Dio understood this normative claim to follow upon the contingencies that made monarchy inevitable at Rome, as well as the Romans’ own unwillingness to speak the name of kingship. The result was a systematic failure of the available languages of politics to map the realities of power. Participants in the system were thus left unable to articulate norms of enduring power in the public sphere.

2In what follows, I first establish a framework of evaluation for Dio’s narrative in respect of imperial legitimacy in the Antonine and Severan periods in light of three considerations: a general understanding of the ideological operations of the Principate as regards emperor, upper class, populace and army; normative statements about proper practice in the imperial office offered by Maecenas in book 52; and the programmatic qualification of those statements offered by Dio in the course of book 53. Thereafter I take up first the axes of analysis employed by Dio to evaluate the emperors of the Antonine and Severan periods, on the understanding that Dio assesses their legitimacy principally in terms of their conduct in office and not, for example, in light of the events that brought about their accession. The final section reflects on superordinate problems raised by Dio in respect to the legibility of politics and the historical enterprise in the monarchy.

“The system of the imperial government”2

  • 2 Gibbon 1995 [1776], 53: “To resume, in a few words, the system of the Imperial government; as it (...)

3In the analysis of so complex a phenomenon as the political culture of the Principate, one would well to remember that the analytic purchase of any given interpretive stance is always achieved by the privileging of one or another perspective, while contingently bracketing or effacing others. Equally importantly, it is crucial to keep in mind how different were the experiential fields of constituent classes within the state. This was particularly true as regards access to information, participation in and witnessing of political ritual, and the temporality of communication. As we shall see, cautions such as these lie heavy on the page of Dio’s text.

4In the course of his remarkable work on Dio, Fergus Millar observes that “with the foundation of the Empire, the Roman upper classes had effectively sacrificed their power to make political decisions in return for the maintenance of their outward dignity and position in the state” (Millar 1964, 107). This mode of analysis, which foregrounds the forms of support and compromise struck between the emperor and the upper-class individuals by whom the offices of the empire were staffed, has advanced a great deal in recent years. A number of developments are relevant here. First, varied forms of normative representations and public deportment cast the emperor as merely first among senatorial office-holders. The “outward dignity” of the Roman upper classes was thus maintained by granting the emperor (in public depiction, at least) only structurally limited forms of preeminence. In one perspective, as Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (1982) and Aloys Winterling (1999) have shown, this was a matter of essential courtesies that followed upon traditional patterns of distinction (and strategic effacement thereof) laid down in the late Republic, and emperors who were thought to observe such niceties – as they were understood in the moment of judgment, at least – were praised for proper conduct.

5In another perspective, such citizenly conduct on the part of the emperor was expressive of the façade of republican monarchy as it had been instituted under Augustus. This is an aspect of imperial politics that John Weisweiler’s on-going work is revealing with particular clarity:

“Latin honorific inscriptions also staked out a claim that emperors were senatorial officeholders: they contained their name, followed by the public offices and titles conferred upon them by the senate and the people of Rome. The ideology of the Principate was not merely a meaningless fiction but had far-reaching consequences on the ways senators and emperors conducted their relationship. By claiming that they were the first magistrates of a restored Republic, Augustus and his successors pledged that they would treat members of the old ruling class of the empire not as subjects but as friends” (Weisweiler 2015, 19).

6Dio provides much evidence in support of this portrait of the ideology of the ruling class when, for example, he praises Pertinax as having conducted himself “most democratically toward us” (74[73].3.4: ἐχρῆτο δὲ καὶ ἡµῖν δηµοτικώτατα). The ethical dative is crucial: of course it would be a profound error for an emperor to mistake the Principate for anything but a monarchy. Democratic conduct was rather appropriate among peers, as between princeps and his fellow senators.

  • 3 Talbert 1984 is emblematic of work in this vein.

7On a more general level, among the many great strengths of Weisweiler’s work are the bridges he forges between social-historical approaches to elite political culture, which tend to exploit as evidence the aetheticized cultural production of the elites themselves, and legal analyses of the institutionalization of the Principate, with their emphasis on normative texts and documentary records. As an independent field of study, these, too, have made great strides in recent years, revealing the ideological and political work that discourses of public law performed in both explaining and shaping the turn to monarchy, and the constraints on monarchic power that they enabled (Ando 2011a; Ando 2013). Nor should it ever be forgotten the extent to which public law, and senatorial involvement in all aspects of government, were indeed foundational to practice3. All these are interests of Dio’s, and to his reflections on these themes we shall shortly turn.

8An important danger, however, inheres in any such effort to describe the coming-to-be of monarchy as a shift in the nature of the oligarchic power, from a senatorial oligarchy lurking behind a republican façade to a court-centered oligarchy under the Principate lurking behind a different but still republican façade. The same danger inheres in efforts to model politics in the early Principate as a system of exchange between imperial court and senatorial elite. In both cases, the army especially, but also the people, figure as mere audience, with the result that every irruption of popular protest or military revolt must be treated as an unexpected and certainly illegitimate exogenous pressure upon a self-contained and self-legitimating system. Recent scholarship has confronted this problem directly, in some cases by analyzing public documents nominally reporting interaction between emperor and Senate as having as their audience parties external to the exchange (Ando 2000, 152-168). In this way, for example, usurpation was dissuaded, because while violence might kill an emperor, only the Senate (it was claimed) had the power to confer the power that comprised the imperial office. In other cases, scholars have suggested media were selected, and messages designed, to reach very particular audiences. In such scholarship, numismatic evidence has unsurprisingly been central to the inquiry (see, e.g., Hekster 2003; Hekster 2007). Overall, there has been a tendency to understand more and more of the population as participants to political communication, and to appreciate the discrepant power that different claims to legitimacy had over those audiences (Ando 2000). Tacitus and Dio were both senators; both were aware that politics took more forms than were encompassed by authorized speech in statally-sanctioned venues; and yet each is guilty in his own way of a narrowly selective representation of the totality of political conduct.

9If we turn now to Dio’s account of the foundation of the Principate, and in particular to the set-up and narration of the moment of the monarchy’s foundation (53.17.1; see also 53.11.5), we witness the initial unfolding of a pattern important to all the subsequent narrative. The debate between Agrippa and Maecenas in book 52 allows for the advancing of several normative claims about the proper conduct of imperial politics, by Maecenas in particular, many of which the reader is invited to revisit, revise and reconsider already in the foundational act of the new regime in book 53 and certainly in the books to follow.

10Among the principles urged on Augustus by Maecenas are seven that will be important to the argument of this paper. (i) Augustus (and by implication future emperors) should concentrate not on the public, normative language of politics but the realities of power – not, as he puts it, on the niceties of titles, but on the consequences that arise from things themselves (52.14.3: µὴ πρὸς τὰς εὐπρεπείας τῶν ὀνοµάτων … ἀλλὰ τὰ γιγνόµενα ἐξ αὐτῶν προσκοπήσαντα). (ii) The “best” and “most eminent” should be recruited into the imperial governing classes and endowed with distinctive Roman social ranks; they will thus become partners in imperial rule (52.19.3: κοινωνοί … τῆς ἀρχῆς γεγονότες). (iii) As a public matter, the emperor should emphasize that the Senate has mastery over all matters, even in foreign affairs and legislation; the appearance that this is so will help to produce obedience and legal legitimacy (52.31.1-2, esp. 1: τά τε γὰρ ἄλλα καὶ σεµνὸν καὶ ἀξιόλογόν ἐστι τὸ τε τὴν βουλὴν πάντων κυρίαν δοκεῖν εἶναι; see also 52.19.4-5). (iv) This principle extends especially to judicial matters concerning senators: persons of high ranks should be tried by their peers. In this way among others, the loyalty of the senatorial class becomes self-policing. What is more, the Senate can thus be made to do the dirty work, while the emperor can exercise clemency, which has the paradoxical effect of making the emperor appear benign but the condemned appear all the more guilty (52.31.3-9). (v) The emperor should extend freedom of speech as liberally as possible: only in that way can an emperor get to know and exploit the talents of others (52.33.3-9). (vi) The conduct of an emperor’s associates, freed and otherwise, is attributed to him, and emperors are judged according to the license they allow their associates (52.37.5-6). (vii) Finally, emperors are constantly on display: they exist “as if on a stage, with all the world in the audience” (52.34.2: καθάπερ γὰρ ἐν ἑνί τινι τῆς ὅλης οἰκουµένης θεάτρῷ ζήσῃ).

11In this way, Maecenas concludes, Augustus “may enjoy the reality of kingship without the disapprobation that attaches to the name” (52.40.2: τὸ τῆς βασιλείας ἔργον ἄνευ τοῦ τῆς ἐπωνυµίας αὐτῆς ἐπιφθόνου), for his advice has been designed to satisfy someone who “prefers the fact of monarchy but fears the name of kingship as accursed” (52.40.1: τὸ µὲν πρᾶγµα τὸ τῆς µοναρχίας vs. τὸ δ᾽ ὄνοµα τὸ τῆς βασιλείας). “Then let him rule under the style of Caesar” (ibid.: τῇ δὲ δὴ τοῦ Καίσαρος προσηγορίᾳ χρώµενος αὐτάρχει).

12Two final features of the speech of Maecenas deserve emphasis, and they are related. First, Maecenas gives advice to a prince; he therefore teaches Augustus how to survive. The question of whether there should be a prince largely does not enter into it. (One might say the same of Machiavelli’s Prince, which work is addressed to a monarch who in Hobbes’s terms acquired sovereignty, rather than receiving it by means already validated by the political culture of those over whom he seeks to rule.) In this sense, Dio’s Maecenas understands Augustus as seeking to institutionalize a form of power not theretofore stabilized at Rome: this is why both Agrippa and Maecenas caution him by citing notable recent failures in such endeavors (52.13.2-4; 52.17). Hence, the speech of Agrippa and the questions he raises – namely, was the office legitimate or even prudent? – marks the last moment in Dio’s narrative when those questions are meaningfully entertained, at least insofar as the question is whether one should reject a given emperor in favor of having no emperor at all. Dio allows Maecenas, by contrast, to refer to this issue only in passing. In this sense, Maecenas barely troubles himself to refute Agrippa, but moves rapidly on to the issue of how his proposal should be implemented in practice, not whether it should triumph over any other proposal.

13The second feature of Maecenas’s speech that deserves some reflection is its status as normative. This is perhaps most salient in the remarkable prominence of aesthetic, moral and deontological vocabulary throughout: his proposal is beautiful (52.15.1: καλά); Augustus should consult with the “best” people (ibid.: µετὰ τῶν ἀρίστων ἀνδρῶν), precluding the possibility of any oppositional speech; emperors should conduct wars according to their own plans, “with all others immediately doing what they are told” (52.15.2: πάντων αὐτίκα τῶν ἄλλων τὸ κελευόµενον); and so forth. The benefits include not only that the emperor and his counselors may determine public honors and wage wars in secrecy (52.15.3: κρύφα), but the good will be honored and the bad punished (52.15.2: τὰς τιµάς τάς τε τιµωρίας); and affairs will be “properly” managed (52.15.4: οὕτω γὰρ ἂν µάλιστα τά τε πραττόµενα ὀρθῶς διοικηθείη). It is not simply that Maecenas says that the people “should” obey laws over which they have no say; or that in his view, honors remain honors and hence socially efficacious even when they are dispensed by the few. The presumption that these will have the same social power in the new regime is consequent upon his belief that monarchic institutions have the same legitimacy as democratic ones.

  • 4 Millar 1964, 97; see C.D. 53.17.1: …καὶ ἀκριβὴς µοναρχία κατέστη· µοναρχία γὰρ ἀληθέστατα ἂν νο (...)

14Beyond the specifics of particular proposals, what is striking about Dio’s narrative of immediately subsequent events in book 53, to wit, the institutionalization of the Principate in 27 BCE, is not simply how he credits Maecenas’s intuition about the importance of a distinction between the languages and trappings of public speech and conduct and the realities of power. Even more crucial is how Dio reveals the distinction to be corrosive of politics, even a stable monarchic politics, from the very start. That is to say, Millar is right that Dio emphasizes a distinction between λόγος and ἔργον in politics, both in the speech of Maecenas, as we have seen, and in his own voice in his analysis of Roman ideologies of monarchic power4. But Dio also gives enormous stress to the ways in which the systematic maintenance and exploitation of this gap fundamentally cripples the political culture and public institutions of the Principate, even as it was envisioned by Maecenas. So, in his own reflections on the distribution of information and the writing of history, Dio allows that under the monarchy, information is hard to come by (53.19). Under a democracy, the adversarial nature of politics made it likely that people would advance competing claims in the public sphere, and each party would seek to vindicate the truth of its claims and interrogate those of others, and so in time the truth would come out. But under a monarchy, and in consequence of the scale of the empire, the truth is more elusive. Much is quite properly made of Dio’s remarks at this juncture on his own project, to the effect that he will henceforth be able only to relate information that circulated publicly, without any regular capacity to verify it. But it merits attention that a major objective of public debate as outlined by Maecenas, that the emperor should receive advice and be able to evaluate the capacities of those offering the advice, must needs also be undermined by the systematic distortion of information in the public sphere.

15Another corrosive effect of the systematic gap between words and realities in the Roman monarchy is highlighted by Dio’s remarks on reactions in the Senate to Augustus’ offer to lay down his powers (53.11). Those reactions were multiple, and Dio analyzes parties and factions within the Senate in a number of ways: according to whether persons knew the intentions of Augustus, according to their emotional response to his proposals, according to whether they believed what he said; and so forth. But Dio also asserts several times over that the combination of uncertainty and risk forced the public deportment of all parties to be the same: e.g, διὰ ταῦτα καὶ ἐθαύµαζον µοίωςµφότεροι (53.11.1); καὶ ἀπ᾿ αὐτῶν τοῖς µὲν παθήµασι διαφόροις τοῖς δὲ ἐπινοήµασιν µοίοις ἐχρῶντο (53.11.2). In this way, Dio’s own carefully imbricated analytic schemes collapse. All are seen by Augustus and each other and by the public to consent to autocracy, and in the event their consent operates to legitimate monarchy both de jure and de facto. Hence, too, one might say that in “reading” senatorial debate, it is now surface meaning all the way down. One function that Maecenas attributed to the Senate might yet be preserved, to wit, its contribution to legal legitimacy in the authorization of norms that originate with the emperor. But the body cannot serve as a repository of talent that must first be assessed and weighed by the emperor if all deportment at all times consists in stylized responses to power, an effect even more intense in his presence.

  • 5 On this theme see Gleason 2011, 54-55, on the behavior of the Senate when it was announced that a (...)

16In this way, as Shadi Bartsch has most elegantly shown, the first casualties of monarchy at Rome were the epistemics of public life and legibility of political conduct (Bartsch 1994), even to the point of the erosion of knowledge of oneself5.

Good and bad emperors in practice

17In order to appreciate how Dio assesses the legitimacy of emperors, it might be useful to commence with an emphatic observation about an issue important to others that Dio nearly wholly neglects. Dio is nearly wholly non-judgemental about the means by which emperors come to the throne. This claim is based on two observations. First, Dio offers no lament for the deaths of emperors he does not like, whatever the means by which they were brought about – neither Domitian, Commodus, Julianus, nor Caracalla, nor even Macrinus, about whom he feels greater ambivalence. The case of Macrinus is perhaps most instructive, insofar as Dio largely regards his role in the assassination of Caracalla in a more-or-less favorable light (79[78].39-41). Dio comes very close to suggesting that, had Macrinus brought about Caracalla’s assassination and returned the power to select an emperor to the Senate, Macrinus could have avoided opprobrium altogether (79[78].41). This brings us to my second observation regarding Dio’s lack of interest in accession as an index of legitimacy. The narrative of the Antonine and Severan periods describes persons who came to the throne by numerous means, from inheritance to murder, and every way in between, including selection by the Senate or, in the summary of Xiphilinus, “the Romans” (68.1.1, regarding Nerva). Hadrian constitutes an important test case, not only because rumors circulated that his accession involved a lie, but because Dio goes out of his way to assert that he possesses testimonial knowledge from his father Apronianus – knowledge he labels “accurately obtained” – to the effect that the accession had in fact been stage-managed and the public story was indeed a lie (69.1.3-4).

  • 6 See also 75[74].2.1: Severus entered the city and promised “such things as good emperors formerly (...)
  • 7 Here I accept the emendation from Boissevain 1901, 344 (line 18), who proposes either εἴη ⟨οἱ⟩ or (...)

18Beyond the lens provided by the speech of Maecenas, Dio himself suggests that one can evaluate emperors in light of a catalog of gestures and actions that can be performed for well or ill. For example, regarding Pertinax, Dio concludes a list of his proper actions with an umbrella claim: beyond these actions, “he did all those things that a good emperor does” (74[73].5.2: τά τε γὰρ ἄλλα, ὅσα ἂν ἀγαθὸς αὐτοκράτωρ, ἔπραττεν ὁ Περτίναξ). By this time, then, if not before, the goodness of emperors had achieved the status of convention, and one could provide an enumerative list of the actions that comprised such goodness6. Per contra, one might conclude from the way that Severus gloated over the head of Albinus “that there was in him none of the characteristics of a good emperor” (76[75].7.4: ἐφ᾿ οἷς δῆλος γενόµενος ὡς οὐδὲν ἐνείη <οἱ>7 αὐτοκράτορος ἀγαθοῦ). Beyond this, I suggest that for Dio, at least, such a list was in fact the only meaningful way to define goodness, and further, that good and bad actions in office were the only measure of legitimacy in which he was interested.

19Turning to Dio’s narrative, one encounters immediately conventional actions that Dio foregrounds as sites of evaluation, positive or negative, on imperial legitimacy. To commence with one of the promises that Dio explicitly labels as conventional, he regularly records that emperors promise not to kill senators, often with explicit qualifications, such as the promise not to do so without a trial in the Senate (see, e.g., 68.2.3 on Nerva; 68.5.1-2 on Trajan; 69.2.4 on Hadrian; 75[74].2.1 on Severus; see also 72[71].28-30 on Marcus in action, since no record of Dio’s account of the start of his reign survives). Of course, Dio attends to two hugely important topics related to this theme. First, some emperors simply violated this promise. In some cases – most notably Hadrian – Dio acknowledges the fact of violation but does not allow this to dampen his overall admiration (69.2.5-6; 69.23.2). As a corollary, Dio also observes occasions when emperors conducted trials through the Senate (see, e.g., 68.16.2, on Trajan; 72[71].28, describing trials for associates of Avidius Cassius; or 77[76].5, on the unfolding in the Senate of the Plautianus affair). But Dio also bears essential witness here to the corrosive influence of imperial power. It is not simply that he has already voiced through Maecenas the theory that emperors should allow the Senate to do the dirty work of punishment while retaining for themselves the power of clemency. Dio also notes the profound pressure that the Senate felt to display its loyalty by treating the merest suspicion or rumor of treason as evidence for it. As Gleason emphasizes about Dio’s narrative of the fall of Baebius Marcellinus, the Senate rushed to convict even in Severus’s absence: “His head was cut off before Severus heard that he had been condemned” (77[76].9.2; Gleason 2011, 56 n. 100).

20Of course, Dio’s Maecenas summarizes his position on the Senate by stressing that emperors should allow the Senate to appear to have mastery in all things. In the surviving evidence for his text, Dio pursues this theme in connection with two types of events in particular: the accession of new emperors, on which occasions the Senate is called upon to confirm the accession, and the reception of embassies. So, for example, Hadrian wrote to the Senate, asking that it confirm his rulership (69.2.2: ἔγραψε δὲ πρὸς τὴν βουλὴν ὁ Ἁδριανὸς ἀξιῶν βεβαιωθῆναι αὑτῷ τὴν ἡγεµονίαν). But in this case, too, Dio almost immediately acknowledges the corrosive effect of power on politics and, as a related matter, on the legibility of politics. For there is never a question but that the Senate will confirm (or “strengthen”, if you will) the rulership of emperors. Hence, though Dio expresses more or less strong indignation at its conduct, Dio’s Senate (“we”) confirmed Julianus, Severus, and Macrinus in the office, even as it declared Julianus and Severus public enemies (74[73].13.1: βεβαιωσάµενος; 74[73].16.1: πολέµιόν τε τὸν Σεουῆρον διὰ τῆς βουλῆς ἐποιήσατο; 74[73].17.4; see also 79[78].9.1-3; 79[78].41.1-3). The surface sameness of the action undertaken at each accession, regardless of the character of the claimant or the means by which he secured the throne, forces Dio to say of the Senate’s vote in the case of Pertinax that in his case, at least, the Senate was sincere (74[73].1.5: λεχθέντων δὲ καὶ ἐπῃνοῦµεν αὐτὸν ἀπὸ γνώµης καὶ ὡς ἀληθῶς ᾑρούµεθα). An exceptional case is Marcus’s coming before the Senate to request funds to continue the war against the Scythians, on the grounds that the funds were not his to use, but belonged to the Senate and people (72[71].33.1-2).

21The pattern of Dio’s information and judgments in respect of the use of the Senate in foreign affairs follows a similar pattern to his remarks on the execution of senators. He would prefer that the norm be respected, and he records specific instances as well as general patterns in this regard (68.9.7 on Trajan; 69.15.2 on Hadrian). But he also records exceptions, and in the case of emperors whom he has chosen to admire, he does not allow the exception to darken his overall assessment (72[71].17: Marcus is so alarmed at the revolt of Avidius Cassius that he comes to terms with the Iazyges and, what is more, does not even communicate terms to the Senate; see also his summary remarks at 72[71].19.1).

22The case of foreign policy leads naturally to another topic, that of the exchange of honors. In foreign policy and domestic legitimation, the emperor allows the Senate the appearance of sovereignty, which the Senate then uses to affirm the emperor in all his acts. In those cases, Dio exposes two forms of asymmetry. In the end, emperors could always demand action from the Senate, and the rapid-fire and very public reversals of judgment in the cases of Julianus and Severus made a mockery of the Senate’s independence and, indeed, must have radically subverted the influence of its affirmations in the public sphere. Then, in foreign affairs, the massive size of the empire, the agency of non-Romans, and the role of contingency meant that emperors sometimes had to act quickly and that emperors and Senate occasionally acted with wildly discrepant information at their disposal, a problem thematized by Dio in respect of both politics and historiography. The same problems affect the economy of honors.

23As Adam Kemezis has shown with admirable care, Dio pays scrupulous attention to the willingness of emperors to grant the honor of a public statue to senators (Kemezis 2012, 390-392). I wish to align three further points with this perception. First, such conduct accords closely with the principle laid down by Maecenas, according to which emperors should honor the good but ignore the rest, a principle he variously articulates in respect to persons, actions and units of advice. Unsurprisingly, this becomes a standard by which the goodness – the legitimacy – of emperors is assessed: Trajan “loved, greeted and honored the good; the others he ignored” (68.5.3). As Kemezis also notes, Dio can make this point both in summary judgments and by listing virtuous men who flourished or, rather, were allowed to flourish, in any given reign (see, e.g., 69.7.4 and 69.18.1 on Hadrian; by contrast, see 73[72].4.1 and 73[72].7.3 on Commodus). Second, I would emphasize a point that I have already made but which has a place in this argument, too, that a prudent emperor retains for himself the power to honor senators in public, but grants the Senate the right to try its own (read: “assigns the Senate the dirty work of policing the loyalty of its members”).

24The third point regarding the granting of honors to senators by emperors that I would stress in this context is that these acts participate in a system of exchange, kindred to that outlined by Weisweiler and others, in which emperors grant specific forms of honors to senators, shoring up the prestige of their class; the Senate, for its part, retains a monopoly on certain honors unique to emperors that it grants in return. The most significant of these are religious thanksgivings and honorific titles in return for military action. The Senate is thus seen to retain a monopoly of adjudication in the assessing of contributions to public goods, and it thanks the emperor for this monopoly power by acknowledging his unique ability to make such contributions (see 68.28.3 and 68.29.2-3 on Trajan: he was “always” writing to the Senate, which responded by voting ever more honors; 69.14.3 on Hadrian; the point is made ex negativo regarding Severus’ communications during the civil war, 76[75].4.1-2; 76[75].7.3-4). It also merits recollection that the entire system functioned through the continuous exchange of written communications, which form the basis of public information and public memory. The possibility that one might lie and hence play on people’s motivations, as well as corrupt knowledge, was ever-present (see 79(78).27.3: Macrinus wrote to the Senate regarding his Parthian victories, but declined the titles that “we” voted him; the explanation for this odd pattern was revealed only later, when the terms of the peace with Artabanus were revealed; see also 68.23.2, where Hadrian circulates false rumors in order to motivate the soldiery).

  • 8 See also 68.15.4, on how proximity to the emperor exposes one to slander; 78[77].8.1-3, on Caraca (...)

25A number of further principles articulated at the foundation of the Principate figure in Dio’s later evaluations, and we may survey these, although there is not scope in the present essay to consider them in detail. It is perhaps worth stressing how appopriate it is that he should write thus. Dio stresses the contingency of the historical and cultural factors that shaped the emergent discursive and legal structures of monarchic power at Rome, and he is enough of a Roman historian to believe that it is in light of those factors (among others) that the operation of the system should be evaluated. Thus it is a distinctive mark of excellence when emperors “do nothing without the first men” (68.2.3, regarding Nerva: ἔπραττε δὲ οὐδὲν ὅ τι µὴ µετὰ τῶν πρώτων ἀνδρῶν; see also 68.6.4 on Trajan; 69.7.4; 72[71].34.3-4 on Marcus, closely echoing the speech of Maecenas). An important corollary is the insistence that emperors are known by their associates, which is to say, not only should they consult with the foremost individuals, but make appointments with regard to social rank and constrain the social prominence of those of low rank whom they must needs employ. Dio provides bitter commentary on the conventional status of this advice when he records the Senate’s acclamation of Severus when that emperor urged the Senate not to grant excessive honors to his freedmen: “All do all things well, because you rule well!” (77[76].6.2). The position of the story, just after the downfall of Plautianus, could scarcely be more revealing8. Finally, as Maecenas reminded Augustus that the emperor existed always as if on a stage, with all the world as his audience, so for Dio, the best emperors are always conscious of the optics of their deportment. An exceptionally clear instance of judgment in this regard is offered on Hadrian: the soldiers see him and emulate him; and foreigners see the soldiers and are afraid (69.9.3; 69.9.5).

Conclusion: the corruption of history

26I have urged that the narrative of book 53 encourages readers not to concede their credulity to Maecenas. Rather, Dio reveals the concentration of power in the hands of a monarch to have so corrupted politics already at the foundation of the Principate as to compromise fundamentally the legibility of public conduct. Dio’s thematization of the distinction between names and realities exists in a relationship of theoretical affinity to this theme. In conclusion, I reflect on three issues consequent upon these observations.

27Dio’s model of imperial legitimacy as based on conventional conduct rather than, say, threshold qualifications of birth or manner of accession, could in theory allow for adaptation over time: as abstractions from past practice, conventions can change and be contested. That is to say, Dio might have historicized his own evaluations of imperial conduct. Alas, the condition of his text permits only very cautious conclusions in this regard. It is at the very least clear that he views the two natural sons of his age, Commodus and Caracalla, and the civil wars that followed the former’s death, as having introduced a profound abasement of the political system.

  • 9 One is reminded of the situation of clerics in the fifth century, when rapid-fire changes in orth (...)
  • 10 Presumably one aspect of the situation to which Dio alludes in his remarks on the violence sparke (...)

28As a related matter, the stress Dio places from the start on visibility, legibility and convention, on the one hand, and the corrosive effects of power, on the other, lingers as a unresolved and perhaps irresolvable problem until, like a time bomb, it is detonated in the age of Severus. Maud Gleason has provided a splendid commentary on Dio’s narratives regarding Cassius Clemens and Coeranus, and on the plasticity the system of imperial power called forth in both conduct and retrospective narration and self-justification on the part of senators (see Gleason 2011 on 75[74].9 and 77[76].5.3-4). Dio himself emphasizes the enormous strain placed on senators as individuals to conform to rapid changes at the center of power, so as not to be caught out having supported the wrong person; he and his peers were thus ever relieved by the rare opportunity to be as neutral as possible (74[73].13.2; 76[75].4.1-2; 76[75].8.5)9. He also stresses the enviable situation of “the people”, which as an aggregate of persons who escape individual identification has greater freedom than the Senate to express its views (74[73].13.2; 79[78].20.1). But most importantly, it is by no means clear that the Senate can any longer function as anchor to a system of legitimation if it acclaims and disavows emperors in consecutive breaths (74[73].16.1 vs. 74[73].17.4). In this sense, the Principate in the age of Severus began to feed upon itself10.

29Finally, it would be appropriate to Dio’s self-understanding as a senatorial historian to consider his thoughts on history as a mirror of politics and record of public action. To begin with, this leads Dio to reflect frequently on the status of public knowledge as conditioned by the release of “information” by those in power (see p. 571-572 above, on 53.19; 79[78].27.3), information that Dio is able very occasionally to correct by claims of autopsy or reliance on testimony that he is willing to endorse (see, e.g., 67.15.2-3: ὥς γε καὶ λέγονται … ἤκουσα δὲ ἔγωγε; see also 68.27.3). This surely has implications for the nature of the trust that Dio wishes us to extend historiography as an enterprise dedicated to the consolidation of public memory (cf. Weisweiler 2014). This is a theme on which Dio reflects most directly when he apologizes for conveying information unworthy of the dignity of history, such as Domitian’s habit of impaling flies on a stylus. Dio explains both that the anecdote is revealing of Domitian’s character, and that he continued the practice when he exercised sole rule (65[66].9.4: ὅτι καὶ µοναρχήσας ὁµοίως αὐτὸ ἐποίει). The stress laid here on µοναρχήσας, sole-rule, conforms with Dio’s allowance regarding the exploits of Commodus, to the effect that otherwise unworthy events had now to be recorded because the emperor did them (73[72].18.3-4). Their every action was political action, and so the subject of public memory. Such was the system of imperial rule, and Dio was its historian.


1 In the essay, I have made frequent use of Cary’s translation, but I have also frequently adapted it or translated anew.

2 Gibbon 1995 [1776], 53: “To resume, in a few words, the system of the Imperial government; as it was instituted by Augustus, and maintained by those princes who understood their own interest and that of the people, it may be defined an absolute monarchy disguised by the forms of a commonwealth. The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed”.

3 Talbert 1984 is emblematic of work in this vein.

4 Millar 1964, 97; see C.D. 53.17.1: …καὶ ἀκριβὴς µοναρχία κατέστη· µοναρχία γὰρ ἀληθέστατα ἂν νοµίζοιτο; 53.17.2: τὸ ὄνοµα τὸ µοναρχικὸν; 53.17.11: διὰ τούτων τῶν ὀνοµάτων; 53.18.2: καὶ οὕτως ἐκ τούτων τῶν δηµοκρατικῶν ὀνοµάτων πᾶσαν τὴν τῆς πολιτείας ἰσχὺν περιβέβληνται ὥστε καὶ τὰ τῶν βασιλέων, πλὴν τοῦ φορτικοῦ τῆς προσηγορίας αὐτῶν, ἔχειν.

5 On this theme see Gleason 2011, 54-55, on the behavior of the Senate when it was announced that an informant had named a bald senator as present for a conspiracy: Dio himself checked his head, though he surely knew how much hair he had (77[76].8). “Dio’s gesture shows how the paranoia of living under autocracy could make people lose the privileged connection to the reality of their own bodies that, under normal conditions, anchors their sense of who they are”.

6 See also 75[74].2.1: Severus entered the city and promised “such things as good emperors formerly promised to us” (ἐνεανιεύσατο µὲν οἷα καὶ οἱ πρῴην ἀγαθοὶ αὐτοκράτορες πρὸς ἡµᾶς); as well as 79[78].38.1: consuls uttered formulae against the false Antoninus “as is customarily done in such cases” (ὥσπερ εἴωθεν ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις γίγνεσθαι).

7 Here I accept the emendation from Boissevain 1901, 344 (line 18), who proposes either εἴη ⟨οἱ⟩ or ἐνείη ⟨οἱ⟩.

8 See also 68.15.4, on how proximity to the emperor exposes one to slander; 78[77].8.1-3, on Caracalla’s whimsical appointments; 79[78].13-15, criticizing Macrinus for not preferring senators.

9 One is reminded of the situation of clerics in the fifth century, when rapid-fire changes in orthodoxy exposed many to the charge of having supported in writing positions endorsed at one ecumenical council that were revised or revoked at another. On this problem see Ando 2011b.

10 Presumably one aspect of the situation to which Dio alludes in his remarks on the violence sparked by the brief rivalry of Macrinus and Elagabalus is that persons eager to align with the winning side, and persons eager to capitalize on the situation, could each resort to violence (79[78].34.7-8).

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont sous Licence OpenEdition Books, sauf mention contraire.

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search