Front Page Titles (by Subject) DISCOURSE VI.: Of the old Law of Treason by the Emperors perverted and extended. - The Works of Tacitus, vol. 1 - Gordon's Discourses, Annals (Books 1-3)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
DISCOURSE VI.: Of the old Law of Treason by the Emperors perverted and extended. - Publius Cornelius Tacitus, The Works of Tacitus, vol. 1 - Gordon’s Discourses, Annals (Books 1-3) [120 AD]
The Works of Tacitus. In Four Volumes. To which are prefixed, Political Discourses upon that Author by Thomas Gordon. The Second Edition, corrected. (London: T. Woodward and J. Peele, 1737). Vol. 1.
Part of: The Works of Tacitus, 4 vols.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Of the old Law of Treason by the Emperors perverted and extended.
The antient Purpose of that Law; the Politics ofAugustusin stretching it.
I Proceed now to shew by what Arts and Supports the Tyranny was preserved and exerted; how the old Laws, especially that of Treason, were perverted, and to explain the instrumenta regni. “This Law, says Tacitus, in the days of our Ancestors, had indeed the same Name, but implied different arraignments and crimes, namely those against the State; as when an army was betrayed abroad, when seditions were raised at home; in short, when the public was faithlesly administered, and the Majesty of the Roman People was debased. These were Actions; and Actions were punished, but Words were free. Augustus was the first who brought Libels under the penalties of this wrested Law a .”
In that sense of this Law (and doubtless it is the true sense) the Emperors were the criminals; they who had enslaved Senate and People, usurped and destroyed the State. But they had got the Power of interpreting Laws, or of directing those who did, and consequently were become the Law-makers. As Laws observed had defended Liberty; Laws wrested secured the Usurpers. Hence the old Law of Treason was degraded and perverted to involve in its penalties the Authors of Lampoons and Pasquinades. This Law of Majesty was so much and so long prostituted and abused; so much bloodshed and oppression was committed by the succeeding Emperors under its name, that at last every sentence and punishment, however just, which was pronounced by virtue of it, was thought unlawful and cruel; so that out of detestation to this abused Law, many other good Laws perished.
Doubtless Reputation is a tender thing, and ought no more to be violated than property or life; and they who attack and blacken it, are as vile Offenders as they who rob and steal. But there was no better pretence for making it treasonable, than for construing any other offence against particulars, to be an offence against the public. In truth, Augustus could have no other view in this, than the suppressing of that Freedom of Speech which was an effect of the freedom of the antient Government, and inconsistent with his Usurpation. When words were made Treason, it was time to be wary of one’s expressions; especially when the construction of them was merely arbitrary, and the Law that made them so, was utterly silent about them, there remained no sort of rule to know when they were otherwise; nor had he who was to be judge any rule but his own suspicion, anger and partiality. For every word, for every action, men were involved in process for Treason, provided there appeared but an informer to charge him, and call it so.
It is to no purpose to say that Augustus sometimes overlooked or pardoned invectives against himself. It was all grimace and false generosity; since, after this Law was so terribly inverted, there was little likelihood that men would run such capital risques. If contumelies upon private persons were high Treason, what must it be to meddle with the Prince or his Administration? He took care of himself without seeming to do so; he found his own sanctuary in providing one for others; and regulations made for his own defence and gratification, had an appearance of a spirit altogether public and disinterested. But it was a downright insult upon the sense of mankind, to convert a petulant imagination and a few wanton words, into a crime against the State. He who exposed the gallantries of a Lady of Quality, or the faults and foibles of a Patrician, was, forsooth, deemed to bear hostile purposes against the Commonwealth: for this is the construction of Treason by the Lawyers. Yet Augustus himself had made obscene Libels, particularly upon Fulvia the wife of Anthony. This multiplying of Treasons from Words and Writings, had a melancholy aspect; for, besides that Treasons multiplied are the bulwarks and engines of Tyranny; looks at last became treasonable, as did natural sympathy and sorrow, nay, sighs and silence.
Augustus was cunning enough to know the advantages of Treasons multiplied to his own domination, and wrested adultery also into a crime of State. His daughter and her daughter were prostitutes, and all their gallants, according to this merciful Monarch, were Traytors, and because these sort of Traytors were very numerous, as well as considerable for quality and credit, he had here a good pretence to get rid of many considerable Romans, who gave him uneasiness and jealousy. With death or banishment therefore he punished their gallants. For to a crime common between men and women, he gave the grievous name of Treason and Sacrilege, and trod upon the moderation of Antiquity. Nor was this sort of Treason limited to the Reigning House and the blood of the Cæsars; it was universal, and every Adulterer was a Traytor; by which he made himself the greatest Traytor in Rome, as he was the most universal Adulterer; nor were his own severe Laws any check upon him, no more than the sacred ties of friendship; for he spared not the wife of his own Favourite, and faithful Counsellor Mæcenas. This was not extreme prudence in so great a Politician, to be daily violating institutions of his own making, especially when by the rigour of the penalties, and the formidable name which he had given to the crime, he had shewn how important and unpardonable he thought it; unless, like the Princes of Italy in Machiavel’s time, he broke penal Laws, to encourage others to do so, on purpose to ensnare delinquents, and gain confiscations.
The Deification of the Emperors, what an engine of Tyranny, and snare to the Roman People.
THE Deification of Augustus and his usurping even in his life-time the Attributes and Prerogatives of a Deity, was another snare for Power and Crimes. Henceforth every offence offered to this new Deity was high Treason against the Gods; for he was a God as well as the best of them, and indeed more to be dreaded than all of them. It became a high crime to swear falsly by his name, the same as if the name of Jupiter had been falsified; nay, to sell his Statue in the sale of a house or gardens; and the citizens of Cyzicus, notwithstanding their faithful adherence and strenuous services to the Romans in the Mithridatic War, were bereft of their freedom for neglecting the worship of the deified Augustus. The name of Apidius Merula was razed from the list of Senators, because he had not sworn upon the Acts of the deified Augustus. One of the articles charged against C. Silanus, Proconsul of Asia, was, that he violated the Deity of Augustus. Varilia, in the opinion of Tiberius, deserved to be condemned, if she had uttered aught irreligiously concerning the deified Augustus; for this was Treason and Blasphemy. Such was the awe and reverence paid to this fresh Deity; and such care had he taken to tie up the tongues of men from censuring him living or dead; he was instar omnium deorum; you might say what you would of other Gods, but beware of injuring a deified Emperor. He had done more mischief, committed higher oppressions, spilt more human blood than all the men in the world, and was made a Deity!
Nor was it out of any principle of Superstition, that Tiberius guarded the fame and Godhead of Augustus with such severe sanctions; for he little mattered the Gods and godly Rites, being himself a Fatalist, and only infatuated with notions of Astrology. Neither was it from any regard to Augustus (who was suspected to have been poisoned to make way for him) and whose Blood and Posterity he was daily destroying; a proceeding inconsistent with the adorations and sacrifices which he affected to offer him, as Agrippina truly told him. But he did it to promote Superstition in others, and rivet the public Slavery; since in religious devotion paid to a Prince, civil submission was included and enforced. It in truth imported him nearly to have all the Laws and doings of Augustus pass for sacred, and to set an example himself that he thought them so. Augustus had left him (as he pretended) his Successor, and it behoved him that Augustus should pass for a Prince of consummate wisdom; for had he erred in other great counsels and events, he might have erred in that; besides, Augustus was a popular Prince, and it would have been unpopular to have neglected him, or rescinded his deeds.
Nero too acquired the Sovereignty by the murder of Claudius, and, to keep it, murdered his Children and Kindred; yet he at first treated his memory with high regard, vindicated the Reign, and even extolled the parts and prudence of this deified fool; for Claudius too was listed amongst the Gods; he who had been the most stupid, cowardly, and bloody Idiot that could possibly wear and disgrace a Diadem. This strange animal or human monster, just begun by nature, but never finished, as his mother used to say, was utterly unfit for any Office in the Empire or private life, yet came to be an Emperor and a God. So that to bear sovereign rule, or to be exalted to a God, no qualification at all was necessary. His grandmother Livia contemned him even to loathing; she could not bear to speak to him. His nephew Caligula, when he had butchered many of his kindred, saved Claudius purely to keep him for a laughing-stock. He was held in the same scorn by his sister Livilla, by Augustus and all his family. He was the jest of the Court b . The kindest word Augustus gave him was that of misellus, wretching.
The Images of the Emperors, how sacred they became, and how pernicious.
AS flattery begot servitude, so it was by servitude propagated, and whatever tended to sink and debase the spirit of the people, as sycophancy did, exalted the Tyrants; nay, their Images and Statues became sacred and revered; and any villain or profligate might offer what outrage he pleased to every worthy man, every slave insult his Lord, every criminal escape justice, by sheltering himself under the Emperor’s Statue, or by carrying his Effigies about him. Nor could so considerable a man as a Senator of Rome, even in the face of the Tribunal, and in the very portal of the Senate, escape the insults and menaces of a profligate woman, who thus defended herself with the Image of Tiberius, though he had legally convicted her of forgery; so far was he from daring to bring her to judgment. So that in this impious reverence to a silent Stone, all Law, and punishment, and protection was swallowed up. This gives probability to what Philostratus tells us in the life of Apollonius Tyaneus, that a master was condemned, as one sacrilegious and accursed, for having chastized a slave, who happened to have about him a small coin impressed with the Effigies of Tiberius. So vastly had servitude grown upon the Romans so early as the Reign of Tiberius, and in the best part of his Reign, even while he yet kept tolerable measures with Law and Liberty, and warily avoided all excesses of power and cruelty. Yet in his second year, Granius Marcellus being arranged of high Treason, it was one of the Articles, that the Statue of Marcellus stood higher than that of the Cæsars, and from that of Augustus the head had been taken off, and the head of Tiberius put on. At the recital of this Tiberius waxed into such a flame and fury, that, departing from his wonted caution and silence, he cried aloud, he would vote in this cause himself under the tie of an oath. He was excellently answered by Cneius Piso, who asked him; “In what place, Cæsar, will you chuse to vote? if first, I shall have your example to follow; if last, I fear, through ignorance, I may happen to differ from you.” Hence the reflection of Tacitus, that there even then remained some faint traces of expiring Liberty c .
It is not strange, however hideous, to find afterwards these Statues, these dead representatives of the dead, invested with such extravagant and inviolable sanctity, that it was death without redemption for a master to chastize his slave near the picture or image of Augustus; death, to change one’s garments there; death, to carry a coin or a ring with his Image into the Privy or into the Stews; death, to drop a word that seemed to censure any action or any saying of his; and death was the portion of that unhappy man, who suffered some public honour to be decreed him by his Colony, on the Anniversary of the same day, when Augustus had once public honours decreed to him.
The execrable Caligula, who was a professed foe to the human race, a monster gorged with blood, and dyed in it, assumed Godhead as well as the rest, and claimed all the apparatus of Divinity, a Temple and Altars, Worship and choice Sacrifices. It is incredible what dreadful punishments he inflicted upon many even of principal fashion, for no other crime, than that they had never invoked his celestial Genius by an Oath. This was capital, it was Majesty violated; and for it the offenders, after they had been first torn and mangled with stripes, were doomed to the mines, or to the drudgery of mending the public roads, or to be thrown to wild beasts; and some were sawed asunder. A bloody Deity! Had he been omnipotent, the race of men must have been extinct. All his own murders, all the efforts of his malice and rage, were not able to accomplish it, and he wished to derive the Glory of his Reign from some signal Calamities happening in it; as if the monster himself had not been curse and calamity enough! He envied Augustus the happiness of an Army massacred, and Tiberius the sad disaster at Fidenæ, where fifty thousand souls were maimed, or perished outright by the fall of the Amphitheatre there. Hence he longed passionately for the blessing of some public Calamities great and dreadful, the Slaughter of great Armies, Famine, Pestilence, Conflagrations and Earthquakes. The acclamations of the crowd in the Theatre differing from his, he uttered a Godlike wish, “That the whole Roman People had but one common neck; for then one execution would have dispatched them all.” To complete the Character of this benevolent Deity, he boasted, that of all his great Qualities, none delighted him so much as his defiance of all shame d .
These celestial Titles and Worship divine, were sometimes bestowed upon the wives of the Emperors, their sisters, harlots, and infants. Caligula was wont to swear by the Divinity of Drusilla his sister and concubine. Claudius had divine Honours decreed to Livia his grandmother. Nero’s daughter by Poppæa was deified; Worship, Priest, and Chapel were assigned her; and it was one of the crimes imputed to Thrasea Pætus, that he did not believe Poppæa herself to be a Divinity. Nay, it would seem as if Nero’s Voice had been created a Divinity, since I think, it was Treason never to have sacrificed to it; a crime imputed to the same Thrasea. Domitian likewise adjudged himself a God, and proved much such another as Caligula.
What a destructive Calamity the Law of Majesty grew, and how fast Treasons multiplied under its Name.
I Have said so much of this humour of deifying Princes living or dead, not so much to expose it, as to shew the wicked effects it had upon Liberty and the State. It opened a new Source of flattery, and accusations, and punishments, and strengthened the hand of Tyranny; of this I have given sufficient instances, and many more might be given, all manifestly proving with what impudence and cruelty the Law of Majesty was stretched and embittered. In this Law all Laws were swallowed up, and therefore all crimes brought under the article of Treason, as Treason was the highest crime e , as in the case of C. Silius, whose chief offence was overmuch service done to Tiberius; thence that refined observation of Tacitus; “That benefits are only fo far acceptable, as it seems possible to discharge them; but when once they have exceeded all retaliation, hatred is returned for gratitude.” Under Tiberius, says Suetonius, every fault passed for Capital, even that of Words, however few and undesigning. When C. Silanus was arraigned for male-administration in Asia, Tacitus says, that besides all the other methods of artifice and violence, manifold and barbarous, used to destroy him; that none of his relations might dare to aid him and plead for him in his trial, articles of Treason were subjoined, a sure bar to all assistance, and a seal upon their lips. One of the great charges against Libo Drusus was, that he asked the fortune-tellers, whether he should not one day be immensely rich. This too was the sin of Majesty violated, and for it he was pursued to death and his estate seized. Note, that these were two men of high quality, akin to the Cæsars, and obnoxious to Tiberius. This seems to have been their real crime. Cesius Cordus was accused of Rapine in his Government of Crete; but to make sure of the criminal, he was likewise charged with the crime of violated Majesty; a charge, says Tacitus, which in those days proved the sum and bulwark of all accusations whatsoever.
It was Treason in Cremutius Cordus to have inserted in his History the praises of Brutus; Treason, to have stiled Cassius the last of the Romans, though in doing it he only quoted the words of Brutus; Treason in Titius Sabinus to have been a follower of Germanicus, and after his death, a faithful friend to his wife and children; Treason in Pompeia Macrina, Treason in her Father and Brother, the former an illustrious Roman Knight, the latter once Prætor, to have been descended from Theophanes of Mitylene, a noble Greek, in great confidence with Pompey the Great; Treason in L. Ennius a Roman Knight, to have turned the Effigies of the Emperor into money; Treason in Lutorius Priscus, another Roman Knight, to have composed during the illness of Drusus, a Poem for an Elegy, in case he died; Treason in Mamercus Scaurus, an illustrious Orator nobly born, that in a Tragedy by him composed, there were certain Verses capable of two meanings; Treason in Torquatus Silanus, a Nobleman of the first rank in Rome, to live splendidly, and entertain several principal servants; another Silanus his Nephew died soon after for the very same sort of Treason. In another Nobleman it was Treason, to have preserved the Image of Cassius amongst those of his Ancestors; Treason in the two brothers sirnamed Petræ, both illustrious Roman Knights, to have dreamed something about Claudius; Treason in Appius Silanus, that Messalina the Empress, and Narcissus the freedman, had forged a dream concerning him; and, to add no more, it was Treason, it was Majesty violated, for a poor distressed Lady to have bewailed the blood of her son, spilt to satiate an implacable Tyrant incensed by his gay raillery. This was Fusius Geminus lately Consul; and his ancient mother was murdered for bewailing the murder of her child f .
[a ]Legem Majestatis reduxerat (Tiberius); cui nomen apud veteres idem, sed alia in judicium veniebant: si quis proditione exercitum, aut plebem seditionibus, denique male gesta Repub. Majestatem populi Romani minuisset. Facta arguebantur, dicta impune erant. Primus Augustus cognitionem de famosis libellis, specie legis ejus tractavit.
[b ]Tum Claudius inter ludibria aulæ erat.
[c ]Manebant etiam tum vestigia morientis libertatis.
[d ]Nihil majus in natura sua laudare se ac probare quam ἀδιατρεψιαι.
[e ]Cuncta quæstione majestatis exercita.
[f ]Fœminæ ob lacrymas incusabantur; necataque est Vitia Fusii Gemini mater, quod filii necem flevisset.