Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome

Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome

Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome

Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome


Rome's transition from a republican system of government to an imperial regime comprised more than a century of civil upheaval and rapid institutional change. Yet the establishment of a ruling dynasty, centered around a single leader, came as a cultural and political shock to Rome's aristocracy, who had shared power in the previous political order. How did the imperial regime manage to establish itself and how did the Roman elites from the time of Julius Caesar to Nero make sense of it? In this compelling book, Matthew Roller reveals a "dialogical" process at work, in which writers and philosophers vigorously negotiated and contested the nature and scope of the emperor's authority, despite the consensus that he was the ultimate authority figure in Roman society.Roller seeks evidence for this "thinking out" of the new order in a wide range of republican and imperial authors, with an emphasis on Lucan and Seneca the Younger. He shows how elites assessed the impact of the imperial system on traditional aristocratic ethics and examines how several longstanding authority relationships in Roman society--those of master to slave, father to son, and gift-creditor to gift-debtor--became competing models for how the emperor did or should relate to his aristocratic subjects. By revealing this ideological activity to be not merely reactive but also constitutive of the new order, Roller contributes to ongoing debates about the character of the Roman imperial system and about the "politics" of literature.


The younger Seneca, in his treatise “On Anger,” provides the following account of the goings-on at a Persian royal dinner party:

King Cambyses was excessively fond of wine. One of his dearest friends, Praexaspes, advised him to drink more sparingly, declaring that drunkenness was disgraceful in a king, whom everyone's eyes and ears followed. To this the king responded, “That you may know how much I am in control of myself, I will prove that both my eyes and my hands are serviceable after drinking wine.” He then drank even more freely than before, from even bigger cups, and now heavy and sodden he bid that his detractor's son go out beyond the threshold, and that he stand with his left hand raised over his head. Then he bent his bow and struck the boy through the very heart, which he had said was his target. Cutting open the boy's chest, he pointed out the arrow tip sticking in the heart itself, and looking back to the father he asked whether he had a sufficiently steady hand. Whereupon the father declared that even Apollo could not have shot more accurately.

Cambysen regem nimis deditum vino Praexaspes unus ex carissimis monebat ut parcius biberet, turpem esse dicens ebrietatem in rege, quem omnium oculi auresque sequerentur. ad haec ille “ut scias,” inquit, “quemadmodum numquam excidam mihi, adprobabo iam et oculos post vinum in officio esse et manus.” bibit deinde liberalius quam alias capacioribus scyphis et iam gravis ac vinolentus obiurgatoris sui filium procedere ultra limen iubet adlevataque super caput sinistra manu stare. tunc intendit arcum et ipsum cor adulescentis (id enim petere se dixerat) figit rescissoque pectore haerens in ipso corde spiculum ostendit ac respiciens patrem interrogavit satisne certam haberet manum. at ille negavit Apollinem potuisse certius mittere. (Ira 3.14.1–2)

This hair-raising sequence of events cries out for explanation on several points: What possessed Praexaspes to reproach Cambyses for heavy drinking in the first place? What is the meaning of the king's savage display of what he calls, paradoxically, his “self-control”? and why, in the end, did Praexaspes praise the king's aim? Seneca, never one to stint on interpretation, offers answers to all of these questions in the sentences immediately following this anecdote. First, he condemns Praexaspes for complimenting the king on his accurate shooting: he calls this courtier a “slave in spirit rather than in legal status” (animo magis quam condicione mancipium, §15.3), since he took the murder of his own son as “an opportunity for flattery” (occasionem blanditiarum). Next Seneca directs his invective against the king: he denounces Cam-

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