Thursday, August 13, 2009

Some thoughts on David Shotter's "Tiberius Caesar".

As part of my effort to look at some slightly later periods of Roman history, I recently managed to find and read David Shotter's "Tiberius Caesar", which I found to be quite interesting, and owing to it's brevity, I managed to read it fully over just two sessions.

Shotter's short monograph (the main body of the work constitutes just 80 pages) on the Principate of Tiberius functions as a welcome and useful introduction to the man and his reign. The work is, of course, not meant to be all encompassing, but rather function as a starting point on any study of Tiberius. In that respect the work joins the ever increasing volume of monographs written by respected scholars that is both short enough and simplified enough to appeal to the general reader.

The work is separated into easy digestible chunks, covering Tiberus' early life, his accession to the role of Emperor, his relations to his contemporaries (the senate and Sejanus specifically), his administration and policies and finally his retirement and death. Treating the life of Tiberius under these headings (as opposed to studying his character outright) is, to my mind, the best way to try and understand the man and his reign, without becoming bogged down in gossip or exaggeration.

The analysis therein is generally of a high standard. Shotter's aim is to try and see behind the cruel and sadistic caricature that Tiberius is often portrayed as. Nevertheless, Shotter makes it abundantly clear throughout that Tiberius was somewhat of an awkward man, and the resulting depictions of him and his reign are an offshoot of the fact that he was misunderstood and not trusted by his contemporaries.

The illustrations are generally useful, although not referred to at all often. The images of coinage are fascinating, even if they feel a little tacked on. The stemma showing Tiberius' relations to the aristocracy is highly interesting, and the stemma of the Imperial family similarly so. Maps of both Italy and the Empire in 14 A.D are useful, although the former is clogged with cities never mentioned in the book and would benefit from a little simplification (Capri is discussed when the map is printed, although it's hard to find because of a plethora of towns around it).

The introductory sections are well written, and indicate the difficulty of pinning down Tiberius, as well as highlighting the topics that will be discussed later in the book. One bone of contention is when Shotter mentions the "inevitability" of the Republic's "disintegration" during his scene setting preamble (pg.7). Whether this is true or not is certainly up for debate, although Shotter doesn't mention it. I'm still to read his work on the end of the Republic, and so I will reserve judgement until I read that work and see if Shotter outlines his position more fully.

Shotter makes it clear from the offset that Tiberius was an odd character, especially in comparison to his predecessor, Augustus. He sets the scene for Tiberius' Principate well, indicating the early events that point towards his character (his forced divorce from his family, which he adored, and his reactions being such an example). Interestingly, Shotter also employs some modern psychology (pg.12) which is both welcome and interesting.

Coming out of the introductory sections Shotter makes one very much aware that Tiberius was a very private character, and while not "evil" as he is often painted, he certainly lacked a certain tact in his dealings with his contemporaries. Shotter uses examples to illustrate this, taking Tiberius's inability to hide his ultimate power in both a debate on rowdiness in the theatre and also sitting in court (pg. 30+31).

Shotter does well here to show the "square peg, round hole" nature of Tiberius in Augustan Rome, and not only the reluctance of Augustus to select him as a successor, but also the reluctant acceptance of it by Tiberius himself. All the while, Shotter manages to keep the readers conception of Tiberius away from the popularly slanderous ones, which is admirable.

One of the main focus' of the monograph is on the workings of the Imperial family, and especially the increasing factionalisation of it. This is evident in the fact that Shotter has two chapters named "Tiberius and the family of Germanicus" and "Sejanus" respectively. In the former Shotter makes much of the tension between the Claudian elements of the family (Tiberius himself, as well has his mother and Augustus' widow, Livia) and the Julian ones (Germanicus and his family). The discussion is light but fruitful, and serves to highlight the family politics of the period which Tiberius sincerely disliked.

The Sejanus chapter continues this discussion insomuch as it shows how Sejanus played Tiberius against Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina (especially the later), and how the increasingly factional nature of the Imperial family played into Sejanus' hands. Again the discussion is light, but very useful in understanding Tiberius and his role.

Shotter, by this point, has made his readers quite aware that Tiberius, if a little bumbling in his relationships, private and political, is not the deviant he is oft depicted as. Much effort is made by shotter to see behind the "dark hand" of Tiberius (pg.44) and that is a thoroughly worthy element of the work. On that topic, the later sections of the book, which correspond to Tiberius' later life, are refreshing.

Shotter pays little heed to rumours of sexual deviancy, rather he points out the relative modesty of the villa on Capri and mentions only once the skin condition that Tiberius exhibited in this period, and concluding that it was going around at the time, and not specific to Tiberius (pg.67). This is emblematic of Shotter's whole approach, as Tiberius skin condition and tales of it are intricately related to the stories of his perversions and maliciousness while in retirement.

The conclusions of the work are, in my opinion, decidedly fair. Shotter depicts Tiberius as a slightly tragic figure, one undeserving of how he is usually conceived. Shotter prefers to focus on Tiberius as an excellent administrator, a reluctant Princeps and someone who was ultimately uncomfortable in Augustan Rome, the two latter of which contributed significantly to how his Principate is conventionally understood to be negative.

Ultimately, Shotter calls Tiberius' reign a "stepping stone" (pg.80), that illustrated that Augustan policy could continue after Augustus and that essentially Augustan Rome could be Augustusless and still function. Arguably Tiberius unwittingly set the tone for the reigns of the later Julio-Claudians through his inability to hide his powers, but Shotter makes much effort to show that this was not from any active malevolence on Tiberius' part, but just his lack of tact. I agree with Shotter when he considers Tiberius' rule to both symbolise the continuation of Augustan Rome, but also it's inevitable consequences.

Like most of these such works, the book contains no referencing, but has a useful, if short, bibliography with recommended further reading. It also has a useful glossary of Latin terms, although the book itself is especially light on using them. Two useful sections are also tacked on at the end. One is a discussion of the primary sources for Tiberius' life and the other a brief discussion on numismatics.

The latter is short but interesting (it ties in nicely with the illustrations throughout the work, usually at the end of chapters, of coinage from Tiberius' reign) while the former is essential reading. Shotter summarises the inherent problems with Valleius Paterculus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius quite well, but it is in his short discussion of Tactitus that some excellent material can be found, which is perhaps expected considering Shotter's other extensive work on Tactitus.

I believe Shotter depicts Tiberius as the quintessential "Tacitean" Emperor. Tacitus was a senator with very strong Republican sentiments and so Tiberius' depiction in Tacitus' "Annals" is quite negative, but not excessively so. Tacitus exerts much energy showing how Tiberius had a terrible relationship with the senate, and in this respect Tiberius is the worst "Tacitean" Emperor - for he lacks the tact to deal with the senate effectively, and as a result his autocratic power is shown in the worst possible light. Tacitus longed for the Republic when the senate was so vital, and in Tiberius inability to deal with it correctly, he illustrated it's essential pointlessness under the Principate, and so Tacitus could do nothing but depict Tiberius negatively.

Admittedly, some of these thoughts are my own, but they are derived from Shotter's highly interesting discussion of Tacitus as a source.

Shotter's work is an interesting and thoughtful introduction to Tiberius. He admirably avoids the caricature, and rather seeks to understand the real Tiberius, who was altogether a rather more tragic and uncomfortable figure. One retains an overwhelming feeling of Tiberius' awkwardness, but also as a sense of sympathy for the man and his situation. Generally then, Shotter has given us a fair appraisal, and as much a taste of Tiberius' reign as such a short introduction can allow.


Relevant bibliography: Shotter, D, "Tiberius Caesar", Routledge (2004)

No comments:

Post a Comment