(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Many readers of the History Book Club’s recent main selection will be stretched to finish this volume. Expecting to find sex and violence, they will instead encounter detailed analyses, repetition, and mild humor intended for specialists. One wonders what the lay reader is to make of a sentence that ends: “ when Helvidius thought the time was propitious, he first fought explicitly for senatorial independence and then, when disillusioned, chose a more outspoken and provocative way of fulfilling his senatorial duty than absention.” This book is intended for readers who know what Helvidius did without being told, because the author does not tell.

Miriam Griffin is a fellow of Somerville College at Oxford and has previously published a monograph on Seneca. She writes for such a small audience that even the dedication is something of an inside joke: “To JG, JBG, MCG, VTG Nero’s latest victims.” Nevertheless, for the specialist, Griffin has some very interesting ideas buried in her chapters—each of which stands much as a separate essay.

The thread which binds the whole together is a belief that the Roman nobility held to such strong conservative ideas about the superiority of amateurs over professionals that effective government would have been impossible if emperor after emperor had not fought for efficient bureaucracies staffed by freedmen and slaves, and for financial security through a great imperial household estate, by personal intervention crushing dangerous individuals as they arose to threaten the precarious stability of the regime. This strong conservative nobility would not · cooperate effectively with the emperors, as repeated efforts at senatorial reform demonstrated, and it could not be trusted to govern, since it was composed of individuals whose secret hope was to succeed to imperial power themselves. To avoid deadlock in government or civil war, one emperor after another tired of efforts at cooperation and assumed full responsibility for governing.

This meant that each emperor ultimately had to face the temptation to govern tyrannically. Whether he did so or not was a matter of personality. So far, this theory offers nothing new. What Griffin does with it is both remarkable and understated. She removes the moralistic wrapping that has enveloped the Julio-Claudian emperors to such an extent that one cannot see them in a human-sized perspective. In the place of moralism, she proposes a dilemma in situational ethics that explains the choices that each emperor made: Those who came to office as mature, experienced men with a good reputation as politicians and generals were able to deal with the nobility easily—few dared to challenge their policies. Emperors who acceded to office while young and inexperienced had to buy an offsetting support from the mob and the army. This policy could be maintained for a few years (each time a golden age) until they had dissipated the resources brought together by their predecessors. When the moment of reckoning came, they had to replenish their finances through confiscations and heavy taxes. These policies ultimately brought about their overthrow.

The lay reader will not readily see this thread of argument, nor can he be expected to see its importance. The specialist, however, will quickly grasp the essentially revisionary nature of this book and eagerly follow the scholarly debate that can be expected in the future. Anyone looking for lurid episodes of imperial life had better look elsewhere. This is a scholar’s book.

Griffin analyzes Nero’s policies as conflicts with the social conservatives who dominate the Senate, the army, and many high government posts. Central to her approach is the much-debated role of Seneca and Burrus as the powers behind the throne during the first five years of Nero’s reign—the golden age. Griffin discounts their importance, dismissing Dio Cassius’ account as self-serving advice to his own ruler, and demonstrating Suetonius’ self-contradictions. She holds with Tacitus that Nero was his own man from the beginning, a young man of talent who took advice because he thought it good, not because he was anybody’s lackey. She backs this claim with an analysis of governmental decisions so detailed that she probably loses most readers before the book is a third along.

Tacitus has been criticized for failing to explain properly the suddenness of Nero’s change from a good to an evil ruler. Surely there was more than personality involved. Tacitus’ strong point was as moral history, with his emphasis on the...

(The entire section is 1868 words.)