Monday, June 4, 2012

Coping with the Tyrants

Steven Cromack

Caesar Augustus
Nearly a century of civil war, in the 1st century BC, led to the collapse of the Roman Republic and shattered the spirit of the Romans.  The Romans needed to come to a new understanding of “emperor.” They populous also coped with the loss of everything they had held most dear—honor, pudor, and virtus.  Flattery, lying, accusations, hypocrisy, and outright insubordination were common tools utilized to numb the pain of living under tyrants.  Ultimately, these Romans hoped to maintain some shred of dignity and honor.

Before the civil war, the Romans hated tyrants.  They idolized the story of Brutus who declared after killing the King, that there would never be a King of Rome, again.  After a century of fighting, however, the Senate, composed of Rome’s most prominent and ancient families, was ready to crown a King and end the violence.  When Augustus came to power, the Senate bestowed upon him the title, “Father of His Country.”  According to the historian Suetonius, in his work The Twelve Caesars, the representative chosen to speak for the Senate told Augustus, “The Senate agree with the People of Rome in saluting you as Father of your Country.”  Augustus responded with a tear in his eye, “What more can I ask of the immortal Gods than that they may permit me to enjoy your approval until my dying day?” (76-77). The only way for the people of Rome to return to the peaceful existence they enjoyed before the wars was to declare Augustus king.  By forcing themselves to bow before Augustus, they would have their lives back.  They yearned for that peace and tranquility—at any cost, even if that meant giving up what they had held dear for five hundred years.

Flattery was the most common tool utilized by the Romans to cope with their newfound emperors.  Romans voluntarily made gods of their tyrants.  They put them on a pedestal by applauding the emperor’s horrible deeds.  They supported and affirmed the decisions and spectacles of the tyrants.  By doing this, they made their nightmare easier to bear. 

The emperor Nero (who lived from 37 to 68 AD) loved to sing and according to Suetonius, he was awful at it (217), and yet, the people flattered him by cheering.  Suetonius wrote of Nero’s singing, “Cities which regularly sponsored musical contests had adopted the practice of sending him every available prize for lyre playing.”  People would invite Nero to dinner and beg him to sing.  Suetonius continued, “They would beg Nero to sing when the meal was over, and applaud his performance to the echo . . . .” (219)  Romans did not confine this flattery to Nero’s musical talent.  Nero was in a chariot race.  During the race, he fell off the chariot, could not continue, and left early.  Nevertheless, the judges declared him the winner and awarded him the prize (220).  If the judges had awarded the prize to any other contestant, Nero would have gotten angry, and no one wanted to provoke the anger of the emperor.  This is why they tried so hard to flatter and humor their tyrants’ every wish.

Every act of flattery was an attempt to keep the emperors content and calm because the tyrants’ anger was frightening.  Romans did not want to invoke or witness such fury.  Caligula often declared, “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me” (161).  He would confine those individuals who criticized his shows or failed to call him genius in cages.  These prisoners had to crouch on all fours like animals.  If they refused, Caligula had them sawed in half (160).  Caligula also required citizens to bequeath something to Tiberius or himself.  If any person did not, Caligula voided their will.  Suetonius wrote, “People would openly declare that he was one of their heirs, with strangers listing him among their friends and parents among their children; but if they continued to live after the declaration he considered himself tricked, and sent several of them presents of poisoned sweets” (166).  In flattering the tyrant by declaring him their child, many Romans hoped he would leave them and their families alone so that they could just live their lives in peace. 

During this period, the Romans suffered from hopelessness.  They wallowed in anguish as they reflected on the fact that they no longer had what made them Roman.  Honor, or the internal spirit that drove an individual’s existence, was gone.  Cicero in his Ad Atticum wrote, “The sun, as you say in one of your letters, seems to me to have fallen out of the universe.  As a sick man is said to have hope as long as he has breath, so I did not cease to hope [that life could go on as usual] so long as Pompey was in Italy.”  It is no wonder the Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Christianity emerged during the Empire years.

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