August 10, 2015

1. Ancient Rome

A. Tiberius

After Augustus died in 14 AD, his step-son Tiberius took over, and ruled for the next 23 years, until his death at age 77. Tiberius spent the last ten years of his reign on the island of Capri (near the Bay of Naples), perhaps from fear of assassination; Cary and Scullard speak of, “a failure of nerve.”1 According to Rumor, Tiberius indulged in “monstrous debauchery,” but our authors reject these stories:

Such gossip deserves little credence, since it is not supported by any first-century evidence, nor is it made more likely by the fact that he lived to be 77 and enjoyed the company of scholars, jurists and men of letters as well as of astrologers.

Our authors say that Tiberius had “an inborn diffidence in his own powers.” This diffidence may have been exacerbated by Augustus’ apparent preference for other successors. When these other successors died, Augustus was forced to choose Tiberius. Tiberius accepted the position of emperor with some reluctance, and eventually had a “positive loathing” for the position.

He had a “cold and reserved manner,” and he was suspicious of others. Pliny the Elder called him tristissimus hominum, the gloomiest of men. Perhaps one reason for his gloom is that, when he was 31, he was forced to divorce a woman he loved (Vipsania Agrippina, Agrippa’s daughter), and marry a woman he loathed (Julia, Augustus’ daughter). After marrying Julia, he once caught sight of Agrippina in the street, and followed her home, crying and begging forgiveness; Augustus made sure that he didn’t see Agrippina again. Perhaps another reason for Tiberius’ gloom is that, when he was 33, his younger brother Drusus died; Tiberius was said to be very close to Drusus. And finally, Tiberius’ son, Drusus II, died when Tiberius was 65. The death of Drusus II seemed to be the “last straw” — Tiberius became even more reclusive, and left Rome altogether.

Being the successor to Augustus wasn’t easy. Augustus had brought peace and order after decades of civil war, and was applauded for that. But when Tiberius came to power, peace and order was the norm, civil war was a distant memory, and the situation had become somewhat boring. Perhaps the spiritual situation was also somewhat boring: the established religion didn’t inspire, didn’t excite; it answered the needs of the nation, but not the needs of the soul.

On his father’s side, Tiberius was descended from one of the oldest Roman families, the Claudian family; his mother, Livia, was his father’s cousin, and was also an aristocrat.2 Livia divorced Tiberius’ father and married Augustus, so Tiberius became the step-son (and adoptive son) of Augustus. Tiberius and the three emperors who followed him (Caligula, Claudius, and Nero) were related by blood to Augustus (the Julii family) or to Livia (the Claudii), hence the term “Julio-Claudian Dynasty.” At no other time in the history of the Roman Empire did power stay within one family for this long; “no later dynasty of emperors lasted for more than two generations.”3 The durability of this dynasty is due to the “unique personal ascendancy” of Augustus, and the army’s loyalty to his family. Apparently the Romans never fully accepted the principle of hereditary succession.

When Augustus handed the reins to Tiberius, he insisted that Tiberius choose Germanicus as his successor. Germanicus was a popular figure and an experienced general; he was Tiberius’ nephew. Tiberius was wary of his headstrong nephew, so when Germanicus was sent to the eastern provinces, Tiberius put a trusted friend, Piso, in the position of Syrian governor, to keep an eye on Germanicus.

Germanicus didn’t bother to follow the rules, entering Egypt without Tiberius’ permission. When Germanicus returned to Syria, he promptly died; he believed that Piso had poisoned him. His widow, Agrippina the Elder, believed that Tiberius had conspired to kill Germanicus, and “she waged a relentless vendetta against the emperor.”4 (Agrippina the Elder, wife of Germanicus, should not be confused with Vipsania Agrippina, first wife of Tiberius.)

Agrippina the Elder, landing at Brundisium
with the ashes of her husband, Germanicus.
painting by Benjamin West

Tiberius probably felt that he was blamed, by many people, for the death of the popular Germanicus; this probably contributed to Tiberius’ gloom, his reclusiveness, his fear of assassination, etc. Tiberius had two motives to kill Germanicus: Germanicus was a potential rival of Tiberius himself, and he was a rival of Tiberius’ son, Drusus II. With Germanicus dead, Tiberius had no rivals to worry about, and Drusus II could step into Germanicus’ place and become heir apparent.

In 23 AD, however, Drusus II died, and Tiberius chose Agrippina the Elder’s children, Nero and Drusus III, as successors (this Nero should not be confused with the later Nero, who became emperor). Enter Sejanus. Sejanus was Tiberius’ Praetorian Prefect, and while Tiberius distrusted almost everyone, Sejanus managed to win Tiberius’ trust. Sejanus gradually persuaded Tiberius that Agrippina the Elder was plotting against him. In 29 AD, Tiberius exiled Agrippina the Elder to the island of Pandataria; her son, Nero, was exiled to a nearby island. In the following year, Tiberius exiled her younger son, Drusus III. Now Sejanus seemed to have what he had long sought: a clear path to the position of emperor. With Tiberius at Capri, Sejanus was already the most powerful person in Rome.

In 31 AD, however, Tiberius received a message from Antonia, widow of his brother, Drusus. Antonia persuaded Tiberius that his real enemy was Sejanus, not Agrippina the Elder. So Tiberius hatched a plot against Sejanus. Tiberius instructed Macro, the head of the vigiles (policemen and firemen), to surround the Senate with his men. Tiberius lured Sejanus to the Senate House with the hope of promotion to tribunicia potestas, a kind of power that emperors possessed. Tiberius bought time by having a long letter from him read in the Senate.

Sejanus listened to the reading of the letter, hoping to hear that he had been promoted. Meanwhile, Macro, head of the vigiles, went to the camp of the Praetorian Guards, told them that he was now their commander, and promised them a bonus. In the last paragraph of the long letter, Sejanus was denounced as a traitor. He was arrested and executed.

But Tiberius was still suspicious of Agrippina the Elder. She died on Pandataria; she may have been driven to suicide, she may have been starved. Her eldest sons, Nero and Drusus III, died of similar causes. But Tiberius wasn’t worried about her youngest son, Caligula, who seemed to be a harmless child. Tiberius kept Caligula on Capri, a quasi-prisoner. Caligula succeeded Tiberius as emperor, travelled to Pandataria, and brought his mother’s ashes back to Rome.

Tiberius had trusted Sejanus completely. Now it was rumored that Sejanus had killed Tiberius’ son, Drusus II, and Tiberius seemed to believe these rumors. If Tiberius was suspicious of others before this affair, he became doubly suspicious after it. He began listening to informers, who brought him accusations of treason (maiestas).5 “There was no public prosecutor at Rome and so the way was open for private gain or private revenge.”6 If the accused were convicted, the accuser would receive one-fourth of his estate.

Under Tiberius, however, this abuse didn’t go too far: the accused was given an open trial, he could speak in his own defense, etc. It appears that only a few innocent people were executed. Under later emperors, though, this abuse was carried further.

Summing up the reign of Tiberius, Cary and Scullard say that, until his last decade, his “civil administration [was] excellent.” Instead of aggrandizing himself, he strengthened the Senate’s powers and prerogatives. In financial matters, he was generally frugal but capable of generosity. As emperor, Tiberius “provided by wise administration a period of peace and stability,” just as, when Augustus was emperor, Tiberius “rendered the Empire outstanding service as soldier and administrator.” But Tiberius had little charm; he said, “Let them hate me, provided they approve of what I do” (oderint dum probent).

Tiberius died in 37 AD. His will was characteristically ambiguous, naming two successors, Caligula (son of Germanicus) and Tiberius’ own grandson (son of Drusus II).

B. Caligula

Caligula became emperor because the praetorian prefect, Macro, liked him, and submitted his name to the Senate. Augustus had trained Tiberius in the arts of war and government, but Caligula had lived on Capri, and had received little training. Caligula was initially popular since he was the son of Germanicus, he was a welcome change from Tiberius, and he began his reign with pay-raises, tax-cuts, circus-shows, and other popular measures.

After a short time, however, Caligula became seriously ill, and when he recovered, he became a tyrant. Perhaps his illness had brought on insanity. At any rate, Caligula killed many people without a trial, he encouraged informers and treason-trials, and he wasted the funds that Tiberius had accumulated. He demanded various kinds of worship, and seemed to convert the Principate into an “absolute monarchy.”7 The Jews became restive, perhaps because they were unwilling to worship an emperor. Caligula’s foreign policy fostered discontent in the provinces, and brought dishonor on Rome.

Caligula’s misconduct led to plots against him. When the plots were discovered, there were executions, which led to more discontent and more plots. “Caligula was caught in a vicious circle.”8 Finally discontent spread to the praetorian guards, and one of them “trapped [Caligula] in a quiet corner of the palace grounds and dispatched him under a rain of dagger-blows.” He died in 41 AD; his reign had lasted just four years.

C. Claudius

After Caligula was murdered, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain. The praetorian guards wanted Claudius to be emperor; his brother, Germanicus, had been a favorite of theirs. When Tiberius was looking around for a successor, Claudius had been passed over because of his mental and physical handicaps; he had “a clumsy gait and an uncouth appearance,” and he was “slow and distrait in his mind.”9 Caligula made Claudius a court buffoon, and mocked him so mercilessly that Claudius became thin and sickly. But Claudius was intelligent, and he had a literary bent; he wrote historical works, some in Greek, some in Latin. “He was proud of his country’s past. He wanted to rule well and in many respects he fulfilled his desire.”

But Claudius had difficulty concentrating, and needed assistants to guide him. He chose freedmen (freed slaves, liberti) to be his assistants, and these freedmen auctioned off government posts. Some of Claudius’ freedmen became richer than Crassus had been. The power of these freedmen offended Senators and Equestrians.

Claudius had four wives and four children. His third wife, Valeria Messalina, carried on numerous affairs. In 48 AD, one of her lovers, a nobleman, was believed to be plotting to replace Claudius as emperor. One of Claudius’ freedmen had this nobleman killed, and also had Valeria Messalina killed. Claudius began to see plots everywhere, and the nobility lived in fear of being accused of treason and executed.

After Valeria Messalina died, Claudius made the Praetorian Guards swear to kill him if he ever married again. But he married again anyway. His fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger, had a son, Nero, by a previous husband. She arranged for Nero to be adopted by Claudius, and she arranged for Nero to be married to Claudius’ daughter, Octavia. When Claudius died in 54 AD, Agrippina the Younger arranged for Nero to become emperor. Some said that Agrippina the Younger poisoned Claudius in order to have her son become emperor. (Agrippina the Younger, daughter of Germanicus and niece of Claudius, should not be confused with Vipsania Agrippina, Tiberius’ first wife, and should not be confused with Agrippina the Elder, daughter of Agrippa and wife of Germanicus.)

In his last years, Claudius’ strength declined, and he was manipulated by his wives and freedmen. Earlier in his reign, though, he tried to cooperate with the Senate, improved the efficiency of the imperial bureaucracy, and built harbors, aqueducts, and roads. He built two roads through the Alps: one through the western Alps (at the Great St. Bernard Pass), and another through the central Alps (at the Brenner Pass).

Claudius tried to drain the Fucine Lake, or at least prevent it from flooding. Caesar had conceived of this project, but hadn’t carried it out. 30,000 men worked on the project for 11 years. A 3-mile tunnel had to be bored through a mountain. To celebrate the completion of the project, Claudius staged a bloody sea fight (naumachia), using 20,000 convicts. Many of these convicts lost their lives for the entertainment of the spectators.

In religious matters, Claudius tried various approaches. He was generally tolerant of foreign cults, but he ordered the “complete suppression” of Druidism. Claudius initially gave Jews throughout the Empire freedom of worship, but in 49 AD, he expelled Jews from Rome. (Jews were also expelled in 139 BC and 19 AD. Such expulsions never worked, hence they were repeated periodically.)

D. Nero

While Claudius’ reign lasted 13 years, Nero’s lasted 14 (54-68 AD). Cary and Scullard describe Nero thus: “His robust frame concealed a weak will. A dilettante to his fingertips, he amused himself with gymnastics or horse-racing, with music, painting and literary composition.”10 Nero was only 16 when he became emperor. His mother, Agrippina the Younger, attempted to wield power “such as no Roman woman had as yet ventured to claim for herself.”

But her ambitions were checked by Nero’s tutor, Seneca, and the head of the Praetorian Guard, Burrus. So Agrippina the Younger became close to her step-son, Britannicus, who was four years younger than Nero. Britannicus was the son of Claudius and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. Agrippina the Younger may have hoped to oust Nero, and install Britannicus as emperor. According to our authors, she “loved power more than Nero,” and Nero probably loved power more than his mother. In 55 AD, just four months into Nero’s reign, Britannicus died suddenly, probably from poison.

When Nero fell in love with Poppaea, another man’s wife, his mother took the side of Octavia, Nero’s wife. Nero decided to murder his mother. A freedman named Anicetus was given the job. “After an abortive attempt to drown her in a collapsible boat on the Bay of Naples, Anicetus broke into her residence and had her crudely battered to death.”

When Nero was about 20, he instituted festivals of music, dance, etc., so he could display his artistic talents. He hired people to applaud him. Later he took his show on the road, touring Greece as “a virtuoso of circus and opera.”

During the early years of Nero’s reign, Seneca and Burrus wielded power, and ruled competently. But in 62 AD, Burrus died and Seneca retired. Nero fell under the influence of one of the two new Praetorian Prefects, Ofonius Tigellinus; our authors describe Tigellinus as Nero’s “evil genius.” Nero divorced Octavia and married Poppaea; Octavia was banished then murdered.

Like his three predecessors (Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius), Nero went downhill, and became more tyrannical, as his reign progressed. He neglected public business, and wasted public money. To alleviate his financial problems, he debased the coinage, so it contained less silver and gold.

Tigellinus and Nero began encouraging professional informers, who accused people of treason (maiestas). Wealthy people were an attractive target; after their execution, their wealth would be confiscated. Often the accused weren’t given a trial, or a chance to defend themselves; instead they were given a “curt order to commit suicide.”

One of those ordered to commit suicide was Seneca. Seneca had been Nero’s tutor and chief minister; he was also one of the leading philosophers of the time (our authors call him “the foremost man of letters of his day”). Seneca’s writings are perhaps the best surviving example of the Stoic philosophy. Seneca wrote about ten tragedies. One might say that he tried to “Romanize” Greek tragedy, as Cicero Romanized Greek philosophy. His tragedies were read in medieval and Renaissance times, and influenced other dramatists. “Though Seneca’s plays lacked neither wit nor force, they were put together without any knowledge of stagecraft and are only fit for reading.”10B

Another person ordered to commit suicide was Petronius, who had advised Nero on matters of fashion and aesthetics; Petronius was called the judge of elegance (elegantiae arbiter). Petronius was a gifted writer and the author of a novel called Satyricon; Nietzsche greatly admired the writings of Petronius.

In 64 AD, ten years into Nero’s reign, Rome was devastated by a huge fire, which burned for more than a week. Though Nero helped those whose homes had been ruined, he also helped himself to 120 acres, so he could construct an elaborate garden with a 120-foot statue of himself, and a new palace, the Golden House (Domus Aurea). It was rumored that Nero had set the fire himself, so he could get his 120 acres. It was also rumored that, while Rome was burning, Nero had sung a song about the burning of Troy.

When Nero heard these rumors, he blamed Christians for the fire, and he executed many Christians. The people, however, continued to blame Nero, and had compassion for the Christians. Nero felt his power ebbing, and feared an uprising. To prevent his armies from rebelling, he executed several commanders. But these executions increased discontent, and fanned the flames of rebellion.

Like Caligula at the end of his reign, Nero lashed out at enemies real and imagined, and by doing so he acquired more enemies. Armies in Spain and Gaul rebelled, and Nero’s supporters in Rome abandoned him. Finally he was almost alone in his Golden House, and though he wanted to die, he couldn’t find anyone to kill him. Eventually he managed to end his life. (The novel Quo Vadis (1895), by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, deals with Nero, Poppaea, Petronius, Tigellinus, the fire of 64 AD, etc. According to Wikipedia, Quo Vadis contains “an outspoken pro-Christian message.” Quo Vadis was made into a popular movie in 1951.)

This painting by Annibale Carracci depicts Peter asking Jesus, Quo vadis? (Where are you going?) Jesus responds, Romam vado iterum crucifigi (I’m going to Rome to be crucified again). Peter was fleeing Rome to escape Nero’s persecution of Christians, but when he hears Jesus’ fearless words, Peter gains courage, and returns to Rome.

Soon after Nero’s death, the Golden House was stripped of valuables, covered with dirt, and obliterated (its extravagance was an embarrassment to other emperors). In the Renaissance, however, it was re-discovered — someone fell through the ground, and found himself in a palace, surrounded by frescoes. The frescoes were in good condition, because they hadn’t been exposed to the air. Rumors about the buried palace began circulating, and soon the leading painters of the day were descending into the Golden House. Michelangelo, Raphael, Ghirlandaio, and others were much impressed by the palace’s paintings, which had considerable influence on Renaissance art. Some visitors wrote their names on the walls. Tourists can explore parts of the Golden House today.

E. Government Institutions

Turning to constitutional changes, our authors say that, under Tiberius, the Popular Assemblies lost the prerogative of electing magistrates; that prerogative was given to the Senate. Likewise, the Assemblies no longer legislated. In the last decades of the Republic, the Assemblies had little real power. Now they lacked even the appearance of power. The only outlets for popular passions were public festivals, where the people could demonstrate, and wall-posters (sometimes called “pasquinades”).

The early emperors made little change in the functions of magistrates (consuls, praetors, etc.). But the power of the magistrates was slowly eroded by the growth of the imperial bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the Senate retained many of the powers that it had possessed under the Republic, and even gained some new powers, such as the power of judging certain criminal cases, and the power of electing magistrates. The emperors, however, sometimes nominated magistrates, hence the Senate’s power to elect magistrates wasn’t unlimited. One might say that the Senate shared power with the emperor. Just as the Senate sometimes functioned as a criminal court, so too the emperor and his advisers sometimes functioned as a court.

2. Miscellaneous

A. One of the most popular historians in the U.S. today is Rick Atkinson, who’s known for his trilogy about World War II, and for his books about the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the recent Iraq War. Click here for his interview with Brian Lamb. Before becoming a historian, Atkinson spent many years as a journalist.

Update 2018: Atkinson is now working on a trilogy about the American Revolution.

B. I saw the movie American Sniper (2014), which is based on a popular memoir of the same name. It has a good ending, a touching ending, but as a whole, I thought it was rather flat — a series of violent acts without much plot, and without much discussion of the pros and cons of the American effort in Iraq.

3. Rhode Island History

A. Ann & Hope

On the night of January 10, 1806, the ship Ann & Hope was wrecked off Block Island. Ann & Hope was owned by two Providence merchants, Nicholas Brown, Jr. and Thomas Ives, and was named after their wives. (Nicholas Brown, Jr. gave more than $150,000 to his alma mater, the College of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, so the college was re-named Brown University.)

The Ann & Hope was carrying cargo valued at $300,000 — an enormous sum at that time. Such a valuable cargo had to be protected from pirates, etc., so the ship was armed with twelve cannons. The cargo consisted of sugar, coffee, and pepper that had been acquired at Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia). Not all the cargo was lost when the ship was wrecked: 2,500 bushels of coffee and 60 bags of pepper were salvaged, but the people on Block Island had to be paid for their part in the salvage effort. (It was lucrative business for Block Islanders, and some coastal communities were said to lure ships onto the rocks in order to obtain the spoils of a shipwreck.)

The Ann & Hope not only bought goods, it also sold goods — candles, glass, cloth, Prussian blue (a pigment or dye), etc. The Ann & Hope made its first voyage in 1798, just eight years before it was wrecked. It was involved in the China Trade, acquiring goods like silk, china, and tea at Canton (now Guangzhou). The voyage from Providence to Canton took about five months. Sometimes the Ann & Hope stopped at the Isle of France (or Īle de France), in the Indian Ocean (the Isle of France is now called Mauritius). Sometimes it traded at Amsterdam or St. Petersburg (more specifically, the port near St. Petersburg called Kronstadt, sometimes spelled Cronstadt); in St. Petersburg, it acquired iron, furs, sail cloth, hemp, etc.

At the time of the shipwreck, the Ann & Hope had made five voyages in the course of seven years. It never completed its sixth voyage. After sailing to Indonesia and back, it was wrecked just a few miles from its destination (Providence). The wrecked ship was sold for $393; it had cost more than $50,000 to build.11

Later a textile mill in the village of Lonsdale, Rhode Island, called itself Ann & Hope. Like many New England mills, it couldn’t compete with mills in the South, and went out of business. In 1946, Marty Chase bought the mill building. Chase was from a Jewish family, was born in Ukraine, and came to the U.S. around 1910. He worked at a clothing store, then started his own clothing store. In the early 1950s, he began selling various merchandise out of his mill building in Lonsdale; he called his department store Ann & Hope.

Ann & Hope was one of the first self-service department stores, in which customers could look at items without sales personnel.... Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, visited the Ann & Hope chain in 1961 and got the idea for Wal-Mart... and Harry Cunningham visited Ann & Hope in the process of preparing to launch the first Kmart store.12

Besides the Chase family, other Jewish families also played prominent roles in modern Rhode Island business: the Hassenfeld brothers, for example, founded Hasbro, the toy company, and the Fain family founded Teknor Apex and Apex department stores.

B. Berkshire Hathaway

The earliest fortunes in New England were probably built on shipping and trade; manufacturing came later. New England profited from the Triangle Trade, which operated between New England, Africa, and the Caribbean, bringing molasses from the Caribbean to New England, where it was made into rum; rum was sent to Africa, and slaves were carried from Africa to the Caribbean and the U.S. One of those who profited from the slave trade was Nicholas Brown, Sr.

The first New England textile mill was Slater Mill, built on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1793. (Today Slater Mill is open for tours; it’s well-preserved and interesting.) Another important early mill was the Francis Cabot Lowell Mill on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts; part of this mill is now the Charles River Museum of Industry. Both Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell learned the secrets of textile mills in England; they had to memorize these secrets because the English wouldn’t allow written plans out of the country. Slater’s partner was Moses Brown, uncle of Nicholas Brown, Jr.

Oliver Chace was a carpenter who worked for Samuel Slater. After learning about textile mills, Chace struck out on his own, opening mills in Fall River, Massachusetts and Valley Falls, Rhode Island. The Valley Falls Company later combined with the Berkshire Manufacturing Company of Adams, Massachusetts, and still later with New Bedford’s Hathaway Manufacturing Company. The resulting company was called Berkshire Hathaway, and its balance sheet impressed Warren Buffett, who acquired the company in 1965. So the dying textile industry of New England, ignored and under-valued, was the seed from which Buffett’s empire grew.

© L. James Hammond 2015
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1. Ch. 32, #1 back
2. Livia’s maternal ancestors were apparently of plebeian status. back
3. Ch. 32, #1 back
4. Ch. 32, #1 back
5. As I said in an earlier issue, the vague crime of maiestas populi Romani imminuta (injury to the majesty of Rome) had been invented about 100 BC. back
6. Ch. 32, #1 back
7. Ch. 32, #2 back
8. Ch. 32, #2 back
9. Ch. 32, #3 back
10. Ch. 32, #4 back
10B. Ch. 34, #6 back
11. Ships and Shipmasters of Old Providence: “The Voyages and Wreck of the Ann & Hope”; available at GoogleBooks back
12. Wikipedia back