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Quo Usque Tandem Abutere, Trumpetina?

Preview of Quo Usque Tandem Abutere Trumpetina

Note to Self: Was it Mary Beard who said that, much as she loved to read Tacitus and Suetonius, it was implausible that all the good emperors were those who died in their beds and were followed by their chosen successors no matter how many senators they had killed or poets they had exiled, while all the bad emperors were those who had been assassinated? Were no good emperors ever assassinated? Did no bad emperors ever die in their beds? Thus she tends toward structural rather than accident- or personality-based history...

The belief that it is in some sense structure rather than personality or accident that controls can be strongly underlined. Consider that in the mid first century BC an inexperienced and unqualified 19-year-old could become first triumvir and then emperor--with the right clientelae. The idea that to overthrow the republic one had to have the gifts of a Pompey or a Caesar--and Caesar and even Pompey did indeed have many and great gifts--would seem to be refuted by the ability of a 19-year-old to successfully helm one wing of the Caesarean coalition.

Similarly: Is it coincidence that both George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton are the first people to have been powered to presidential nominations by what was crucially a family affinity? Is it coincidence that Donald Trump has no governing experience whatsoever and that Barack Obama's previous governing experience was... rather thin?

I happen to think that the Roman Republic was gone the moment Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix realized that his army was loyal to him and that he could use it to challenge the Marian settlement. Thereafter the question was not whether the Republic would survive, but whether somebody would manage to turn it into an empire. Similarly: what will historians in 4000 say about this American Republic-Empire of ours?

Mary Beard: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome: http://amzn.to/2fvWh9l:

How exactly Roman writers imagined that bad emperors revealed their badness can tell us an enormous amount about Roman cultural assumptions and morality more generall...

...from the particular frisson that attached – and still does – to sex in swimming pools, to the more surprising objection to cruelty to flies (probably a sign that there was nothing so trivial in the world that Domitian would not make a hobby out of hurting it). But as evidence for the reality of imperial rule, they remain a mixture of accurate reporting, exaggeration and guesswork that it is almost always impossible to untangle.

What went on behind the closed doors of the palace was usually secret. Some facts leaked out, some pronouncements were made in public, but for the most part conspiracy theories flourished. It did not take much to turn a nearly tragic boating accident into a bungled murder attempt (how, anyway, did Tacitus know about the foolish gambit of Agrippina’s servant?). And what we would call urban myths abounded. More or less identical anecdotes and apparently spontaneous bons mots turn up in the biographies of different rulers. Was it Domitian or was it Hadrian who wryly observed that no one would believe there was a plot against an emperor until he was found dead? Maybe both of them did. Maybe Domitian coined it and Hadrian repeated it. Or maybe it was a convenient cliché about the dangers of high rank that could be put into the mouth of almost any ruler.

More generally, the politics of regime change had a major influence on how each emperor went down in history, as imperial careers and characters were reinvented to serve the interests of those who followed them. The basic rule of Roman history is that those who were assassinated were, like Gaius, demonised. Those who died in their beds, succeeded by a son and heir, natural or adopted, were praised as generous and avuncular characters, devoted to the success of Rome, who did not take themselves too seriously...