Friday, 26 February 2016

Lucius Aelius Sejanus

Sejanus before Star Trek

"Aelius Sejanus was a Tuscan (Etruscan) by birth. He obtained in his youth a commission in the Praetorian Guard, and rose from post to post till he became chief-in-command, first as his father's colleague and then alone. It was he who made the Praetorians the formidable force that many a time in after years gave the Empire at its will. He collected its scattered regiments into one corps, and gave it a camp outside the walls. He spared no pains to make himself the idol of the troops, not only in Rome, but in the provinces, and he succeeded so well, that his bust was commonly placed beside the Emperor's at headquarters to be common objects of veneration."

Aelius Sejanus of ancient Rome makes the perfect study in the use and misuse of power. The man, at his pinnacle, had it all and controlled the greatest Empire of the ancient world: Rome. But his position was always precarious, and he knew it. His time as Praefect of the largest military force in Rome gave him immense power due to the unique trust afforded by the Roman Emperor, Tiberius. I feel sorry for Tiberius. I get the impression that he never wanted to be Emperor. It was foisted on him by his ambitious mother, Livia. Although in truth, he really had little choice in the matter.

Augustus had established a dictatorship. By 26BC the Republic was no more and could never be reinstated. Dictatorship was the only political reality for Rome. If Tiberius didn't take the throne after Augustus' death, then someone else would. And by necessity, Tiberius and perhaps his whole family would be killed; this was the political reality in post-Republican Rome. Tiberius was a competent soldier and what we would call, an 'academic'. He was no fool and fully recognised the position he was in. He once said: "Ruling Rome was like holding a wolf by the ears". He almost lost that grasp.

The Praetorian Guard was originally scattered in lodgings outside the city. Sejanus took the important initiative of bringing 9,000 troops into a single barracks close to the city walls. Tiberius deserted Rome for the island of Caprae in 26 AD never to return. He had grown tired of Imperial administration and was happy to devolve this onerous task to the able and hardworking Praefect. In the absence of the Emperor, Sejanus became the master of Rome and therefore, by default, the Empire. It is easy to see how one man could be seduced by such power. Sejanus controlled access to the Emperor and anyone seeking the ear of Tiberius had to do so through him. In this way, Sejanus cemented a sycophantic following amongst the Senators of Rome. Any dissension in the ranks was swiftly dealt with and miscreants found themselves summarily brought before the courts on 'treason charges'. The outcome requires no imagination. Tiberius' family proved more of a challenge. Haughty and aristocratic they considered themselves immune from, or so they reckoned, from state-sanctioned destruction wrought by Sejanus, or more correctly, Sejanus' agents. Tiberius's son, Drusus, no doubt resented the power entrusted in this mere knight. Naturally, Drusus was feted to be the next Emperor. Drusus from his exalted status and perspective was under no illusion about Sejanus' ultimate intention. His unique and privileged position gave him the means to check the power of Sejanus, if only he had applied some subtlety. But subtlety was not part of a noble Roman's makeup and he was openly hostile to the Praefect. On one occasion, Drusus struck Sejanus during an argument. Sejanus' response was calculated and far-seeing; he seduced Drusus' wife, Livilia.

Sejanus was an intelligent and more importantly, a patient man. He would have to be. Even after he convinced Livillia to poison her impetuous husband he still had to remove other members of the Imperial family and it would have been prudent to do so before the death of Tiberius. If Tiberius died suddenly, and with heirs apparent  Sejanus would have a problem. Although he was in the perfect position to seize power, as he commanded Rome's troops  his position was not overly secure. Apart from Drusus, Sejanus had Germanicus’ children to deal with. Germanicus had been a popular soldier and member of the royal family who had died whilst on campaign under suspicious circumstances. Although Germanicus’ children were dissolute they still attracted love, prestige and respect from the common people and more importantly, the legions, especially the powerful Rhine army. He may have been secure in Rome, but Sejanus did not have enough loyal troops to fight a civil war if the Rhine legions marched south.

There is disagreement amongst modern scholars concerning Tiberius's motivation and stance toward Sejanus. Some reckon he was a simple dupe who left the running of the Empire to his able associate and ultimately trusted Sejanus, implicitly. Others suspect that Tiberius was playing a fine game. He would have found Sejanus useful but was under no illusion as to his true intention. Therefore, he gambled that Sejanus would not make a bid for power whilst he lived. A reasonable assumption, I think. I lean toward the second interpretation. Tiberius was a highly intelligent man and not without guile when it suited him. I can't believe that Tiberius was totally unaware of Sejanus' machinations even though secluded on the delightful island of Caprae. Perhaps Tiberius was a cunning old goat, after all? Of course, we will never know for sure. This neatly brings us to the ancient sources and the problem of interpretation. We are much reliant on the ancient authors, Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus and Cassius Dio. All are unsympathetic commentators on both Tiberius and Sejanus. History is not a scientific appreciation of events but an interpretation. Clearly events happen, but motives and a consideration of the complex interaction between parties involved can be lost or conveniently, not reported. Historians are not as objective as they like to think, or above prejudice or  partisan involvement. As for the Roman writers, there is another consideration: they wrote for a limited audience. They wrote for the Imperial family and the Roman ‘ruling’ elite. And so they were inclined to reinforce and defer to the views of the incumbent Emperor. At the time of writing, Imperial feeling was overtly antagonistic to the memory of Sejanus and Tiberius. Roman writers walked a thin line between ‘artistic freedom’ and pandering to rulers who could end their livelihoods and even their lives. Modern revisionist historians have, on the whole, produced a more balanced and sympathetic view of the second Emperor, but not of Sejanus.    

Sejanus, working through agents, progressively discredited Germanicus’ male children in the eyes of the Emperor. Drusus, Nero (not the future emperor) and their mother, Agrippina were imprisoned and eventually suffered a pitiful fate. The only male sibling to escape was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus  ( future Emperor, Caligula). Unfortunately for Sejanus and the future Empire, Caligula had been sent to Caprae and was impervious to Sejanus’ guile and machinations. 
It is said that Tiberius received a letter from a kinswoman (possibly Antonia) informing him of Sejanus' intent of taking over the reins of power from a senile old Emperor. Anyway, regardless how Tiberius arranged it, he secured the allegiance of Sejanus' second in command, Macro. Thus, Sejanus's fall was swift and brutal. In the Senate, one day (31AD), a letter from the Emperor was read out. At first, it praised Sejanus, but as it continued it became chiding and culminated in Sejanus' denunciation. Macro's troops were quick to react and Sejanus was promptly arrested and strangled. Poor Sejanus had always a flimsy power base secured by fear alone; at least among the Senators. Once arrested, any genuine support he may have had evaporated clean away. A purge followed and Sejanus’ family and friends were ruthlessly murdered. 

Sejanus’ legacy: The concentration of such a large military force outside Rome’s walls would have some unpleasant repercussions for the future of the Empire. The Praetorians soon learned to use their power to extort money from ruling and potential Emperors and eventually became ‘King makers’ by virtue of their power base within the heart of the Empire, civil wars notwithstanding. More than a few Emperors, from Claudius onwards, if they wanted to continue to rule and ultimately valued their lives would have to 'donate' a generous largesse to the troops.   


  1. As he is Italian, do we know his position on Brexit?

  2. "...Tiberius and perhaps his whole family would be killed; this was the political reality in post-Republican Rome..."

    And wouldn't a certain one-eyed Scotsman have loved it to be so in 21st Century Britain, after he moved into no. 10?

  3. Happy Birthday you old cunt!

    Good job you weren't born on the 29th or you'd only be 15...

    And PLEASE! Not another birthday song. Play it and weep :

    1. Thankyou Sir. Waiting in bed for brekkie. Full 'English' with pigs pud- well the Kiwi version. BBQ later with the remnants of my family. Arse.