A new document on the accession of Tiberius

An extremely fascinating inscription from the first year – indeed, probably, the first month – of the principate of Tiberius, casting new light on the Tacitean narrative of his succession, has come to light in Spain last year under rather murky circumstances. It consists of three joining fragments of the upper right corner of a bronze tablet, with a document that deals with the privileges of veterans on retirement and the ways in which they were being financed by the treasury, but also mentions the obedience of the soldiers to Augustus and Tiberius. The tablet was seized by the police from the auction house of Jesus Vico y Asociados in Madrid, and a proper home in a museum collection will, it is hoped, be found for it (see also an Anglophone news item here). An official publication, commissioned by the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum II project, responsible for the publication of Latin inscriptions of Spain, is forthcoming from Antonio Caballos Rufino at Sevilla in the next issue of Cahiers Glotz, and we should wait for it for the proper discussion of this important document (he has very helpfully put his abstract online on academia.edu for the time being).

In the meanwhile, however, the inscription has been published, within weeks of its first appearance online, by Peter Rothenhöfer at the Sun Yat-Sen University, in the Turkish learned journal Gephyra, it would seem from an auction house photograph of the fragments. (The lot in the auction of 5 March 2020 that he references has disappeared from the list of lots, which is I suppose unsurprising given the police action.) With all due respect for the speed of publication of an important and captivating text, the subsequent seizure of the bronze tablet by the police seems to highlight the problems with publishing items on the art market without due diligence rather starkly, particularly as we now know that an official publication will be forthcoming without delay. Since, however, we now have the text available in an academic journal, and it has already been taken from Gephyra onto the Clauss-Slaby epigraphic database, I hope a few preliminary thoughts – which will no doubt be revised in the light of Caballos Rufino’s edition – may be forgivable. I give Rothenhöfer’s text and translation (with which I disagree at a number of points) below as the basis for discussion.

[Sex(to) Appuleio Sex(to) Pom]peio • co(n)s(ulibus)

[- – -q]ui • sub • signis • sunt • quam

[- – -obsequiu?]m • Aug(usto) • patri • praestiterunt

4 [- – -]E • obsequium Ti(berio) • Caesari

[Augusto – – -? pra]estare volverint • idque • eos

[- – -] Ti(berii) • Caesaris • Augusti • facere

[- – -]I • commoda • eorum • MAGN-

8 [- – -]NT • sed • etiam • quia • aucto

[ – – – no]ua or [- – – d]ua • vectigalia • institueren-

[t or -tur – – -]tare • ex • patrimoniis • om-

[nibus or -nium – – -s]imul cum missione

12 [- – – in contionibus? exerc]ituum • proponeretur

[- – -]SE • ex . . TIRIS • gentibus

[- – -]TQVI? • p(opul-) • R(oman-) • sunt • quam

‘In the consulship of Sex. Appuleius and Sex. Pompeius … who were serving in the army … they showed (obedience?) to (my) father Augustus … they will have been showed obedience to Ti. Caesar Augustus and this … they … to do … of Ti. Caesar Augustus … their gratuities … but even because (after?) the augmentation … new (or two?) taxes were introduced … from the patrimonies of … together with the dismissal … (the assembly?) of the army was informed … from the ..TIRIS tribes … the Roman people …’

Let’s begin with the date of the document. As R. rightly points out, the consular date is easy to restore to the consulship of Sextus Appuleius and Sextus Pompeius, the relatives of Augustus who held that office in AD 14, at the time of Augustus’ death and the first imperial succession. As he notes, the crucial context is provided by the mutinies of the legions in Pannonia and on the Rhine, demanding reduction to the length of service and better retirement conditions and winning some temporary concessions, which is given a very prominent place in Tacitus’ account of Tiberius’ accession (Annals 1.16-52), and briefly mentioned by Velleius Paterculus and Cassius Dio. The references to the politically complicated story of the establishment of the new treasury for the payment of veterans’ benefits (aerarium militare) by Augustus, and to the new taxes that financed it, must be in some way connected to this pressure from the army, as is the reference to the obedience (obsequium) that the troops owed to Augustus and transferred to Tiberius.

At what point in the sequence of events that followed the death of Augustus, however, is the new document to be put? The important dates are as follows: Augustus died on 19 August at Nola in Campania, and his body was slowly moved to Rome for a funeral, which could not have happened before early September; at the fist meeting of the Senate, sometime between 1-4 September (possibly on the 1st, if the normal routine of meeting on the Kalends of each month was followed: Suetonius, Life of Augustus 35), the will of Augustus was opened and funeral arrangements agreed; on 17 September, as we know from inscribed calendars, Augustus was deified. The usual (and the easiest) reading of Tacitus’ narrative (Annals 1.10-11) implies that the senatorial debate on Tiberius’ powers followed later in the same meeting. Meanwhile, legions in Pannonia and Germany mutinied when they received the news of Augustus’ death. The revolt in Germany was dealt with separately by Tiberius’ adopted son Germanicus who was in command there, though a senatorial embassy from Rome arrived towards the end of the proceedings. The news about the much closer army in Pannonia reached the emperor earlier, and his son Drusus was sent to deal with it. His arrival at Emona on 26 September is another firm date, based on a lunar eclipse at 5 am next morning. In Tacitus’ narrative, his departure seems to follow the senatorial debates, and it is only a later accusation (Annals 1.42) that Tiberius’ seeming hesitation to accept the plenitude of Augustus’ powers was seen as dissimulation informed by knowledge of the revolts.

What is striking in our text is that Augustus is simply called ‘Augustus the father’ (Aug(usto) patri) in L. 3, with no reference to his deified status, as one would confidently expect in an official document after 17 September. The preceding M makes it impossible that the text said diuo Augusto (‘divine Augustus’). Of course, one could argue for an accidental omission of the reference to Augustus’s divinity that soon after it was decreed, particularly in a provincial copy. If, however, this was not an accident, it puts our text in a very narrow chronological window, between the first meeting of the Senate at which Augustus’ will was opened and Tiberius inherited the name Augustus (which he is given in L. 6: Ti. Caesaris Augusti), and the deification of Augustus on 17 September. (R. prefers to date the document after 17 September on the grounds that it was then that Tiberius accepted the name of Augustus, but Tacitus’ narrative in Ann. 1.8, while referring to Livia rather than Tiberius, seems rather to indicate that the arrangements about the nomen Augustum were contained in the will and approved at the first meeting.)

This may reinforce the long-standing doubts about the sequence of the Tacitean narrative. It is widely accepted that the troops sent with Drusus could not have reached Emona by the 26th if they were only dispatched after the 17th; Michael M. Sage, ‘Tacitus and the accession of Tiberius’, Ancient Society 13/14 (1982/3) 293-321, the most cogent and persuasive discussion of the chronology from the sources known to us before, puts the dispatch of the troops on 7 September. One could argue that Drusus stayed for the meeting and them rode post-haste to catch up with the troops, but it would seem certain that Tiberius was aware of the situation and taking action some time before the deification of Augustus.

Is this document, then, the earliest official reaction to the events in Pannonia? And who issued it? References to Tiberius in the third person in lines 4 and 6 would firmly exclude an edict or letter from himself. A letter from the imperial legate of Hispania Tarraconensis (or another governor of a Spanish province), summarising the proceedings at Rome, as suggested to me by Andrew Lintott, would be attractive, but that would inevitably date after 17 September, and the omission of Augustus’ deification would be exceptionally odd. The abstract of Caballos Rufino’s article identifies it as a senatorial decree, which is more attractive but faces several important problems.

First, it is not obvious that there was a meeting of the Senate that could have passed it in the first half of September. Kenneth Wellesley, who was the first to fully formulate the doubts about the chronology of Drusus’ Pannonian expedition, proposed in an important article in the Journal of Roman Studies for 1967 that Tiberius’ accession happened much quicker, and that the meeting of the Senate that confirmed his powers happened as early as ca. 3 September. This could be an attractive chronology for our document (and go together with the troops departure for Pannonia around 7 September), but has problems of its own: as Sage shows in the article referenced above, the funeral of Augustus could not have taken place earlier than on 6 September. If some version of this is true (I wonder about the statutory meeting of the Senate on the Ides of September, i.e. the 13th – was it simply rescheduled to the 17th?), Tacitus’ narrative goes more astray than we previously realised; as convincingly explained by F.R.D. Goodyear in his commentary on Ann. 1.11, Tacitus does assume that the grant of powers to Tiberius followed the deification. One intractable phrase in Tacitus, nonetheless, may support the ‘senatorial decree’ interpretation: when the senatorial delegation finally reached the headquarters of the German legions, the leader of the delegation, former consul Munatius Plancus, was ‘accused at the instigator of the senatorial decree’ (Annals 1.39: auctorem senatus consulti incusant). This is usually understood as a senatorial decision, perhaps even imagined by the soldiers rather than a real one, denying Germanicus power, but what if it was a document more directly addressing the burning issue of retirement?

Secondly, though, two technical problems face us if we identify the document as a senatus consultum. As Rothenhöfer notes, we can calculate the space lost on the left from L. 1 (assuming it contained only the consular date, that is, of which more below); it would appear, given the difference in letter size, that about 43-45 letters are lost to the left, if the text was written in a single column. That would not be remotely enough for the usual prescript of a senatorial decree. In the contemporary senatus consultum de Pisone patre of AD 20, it takes 11 lines of more than 60 characters. This may be resolved (though posing a much longer document) if the text was laid out in more than one column, as R. tentatively suggests in a footnote, and as we’ll see, there are reasons to think that it was. A more intractable problem, however, would be presented by the header in large letters: putting simply a consular date at the beginning of a senatorial decree in this fashion would be entirely without a parallel. One could get round it assuming a much longer L. 1 (implying over a hundred letters, probably arranged 2-3 columns, lost to the left), similar to the header of the senatus consultum de Pisone: the title of the decree, then propositum (published), then the consular date. It’s worth noting, however, that the date of publication in the senatus consultum de Pisone references the governor of the province, not the consular date, and assuming the bronze tablet does indeed come from Spain, that would be the most natural expectation. If the consular date stood alone, we could rather think of the edict of Claudius from Baiae, issued on 15 March 46, as an epigraphic parallel.

If it is an edict, though, and it does not come from Tiberius or a provincial governor in Spain, who may it be from? A possible solution may be the consuls, Sextus Appuleius and Sextus Pompeius, themselves. Tacitus in Annals 1.7 claims that in the first few weeks after Augustus’ death Tiberius played a strict constitutionalist in most respects, and ‘initiated everything through the consuls, as if in the old republic and ambivalent about exercising power’ (cuncta per consules incipiebat, tamquam uetere re publica et ambiguus imperandi). He also relates in the same passage how the consuls (even before the senatorial meeting) lead ‘the senate, the soldiery and the people’ in swearing fealty to Tiberius. This may explain the references to the transfer of obsequium to Tiberius in lines 3-5 of our fragment. The translation of these lines ought to be rather ‘they showed obedience to Augustus pater…since they have (now) wished to show obedience to Tiberius Caesar Augustus’, with the perfect subjunctive of volo in a causal clause, rather than a future perfect (I owe the wording of the translation to Greg Rowe. Incidentally, any plausible restoration of a coherent sentence here implies a line considerably shorter than 60 letters, and so would support the supposition that the text was laid out in – at least – two columns.). That may well be a description of the oath initiated by the consuls.

If that is indeed the case, the edict of the consuls, while addressing the recent benevolence of Augustus and Tiberius towards the army, may not have been addressing the Pannonian legions’ demands directly at all, and thus could perhaps have been seen as the evidence of Tiberian disingenuousness after the event, when the reasons for framing the proclamation in such a way became more apparent. This is an altogether more Tacitean reading of the events than the one suggested above. The troops in Italy swear in at the instigation of the consuls, who in their edict announcing the new loyalty of the army happen to address the concerns that Pannonian mutineers are already making; the praetorians, after swearing, are quietly sent off to Pannonia; meanwhile, in Rome a constitutional show continues (Tacitus himself stresses the contrast with Tiberius issuing the password to the praetorians ahead of constitutional schedule). It is only afterwards that the destination of Drusus becomes evident, and Tiberian dissimulation is criticized. If it was general enough in addressing the army’s needs and the emperors’ benevolence, it may also be easier to explain a provincial copy, perhaps indeed in a military camp, as R. suggests on the parallel of the senatus consultum de Pisone, then for a document issued later in the autumn. The concessions about the length of service made in the immediate aftermath of the mutinies were very quickly revoked as male consulta (Tacitus, Annals 1.78) and perhaps not meant for wide dissemination to other armies while they lasted. The more permanent arrangements for the military treasury, however, were only approved in AD 15, and so under another pair of consuls.

Finally, however, the text of lines 13/14. In L. 13 ext<e>ris gentibus, ‘foreign tribes’ (with a vacat after ex), an expression paralleled in the senatus consultum de Pisone, seems to me preferable to R.’s rather incomprehensible ex [..]tiris gentibus: there does not seem to be any damage to the bronze tablet between X and T, nor is there a Latin word that would fit the lacuna. In the next line, instead of R.’s qui I seem to see que in the police photograph; the upper horizontal bar is clearly visible, and the engraver’s Is don’t have any serifs. Before it, there may be a top of another E, rather than a T: the middle bar is visible (R. proposes TO VT as an alternative to T QVI in his apparatus criticus, but this is perhaps less convincing). Building on a suggestion made to me by Andrew Lintott, I wonder if it may be possible to restore [qui sub imperio dicion]eque p(opuli) R(omani) sunt (‘who are under the power and jurisdiction of the Roman people’). If that is so, it would confirm that the text was laid out in two or more columns (giving the length of a column line at 33 letters), but more importantly, this would seem more appropriate to the legions out there on the empire’s borders than to the praetorian guard in Italy swearing with the consuls. Still a broader framing of the army’s loyalty, referring back perhaps to Tiberius’ own campaigns in Pannonia, Germany and elsewhere? Or a more explicit reference to the legionaries’ demands, after all, and an open discussion of the legionary revolts by the consuls or even the Senate before 17 September, demonstrating that Tacitus’ presentation of these events was deeply misleading? On the chronology proposed by M.M. Sage, the senatorial embassy to the legions in Germany was dispatched as early as 18 September: that may imply some proclamation addressed to the soldiers earlier, be it by the Senate in an extra meeting or by the consuls. It is striking that, while our document can hardly be THE senatorial decree on the powers of Tiberius, the expression Augusto patri echoes the best attested expression from that text, which spoke of Tiberius inheriting the statio paterna, his father’s position, or even ‘military posting’ (Velleius Paterculus 2.124, compare senatus consultum de Pisone patre, lines 129/130) – the rhetoric of the two texts was obviously connected.

To sum up, many uncertainties, difficult to resolve: a consular edict or a senatorial decree? Framing the army’s new loyalty in broad terms of imperial benefactions and military success (if arguably with Tiberius and his councillors already aware of the mutinies) or addressing the events in Pannonia and perhaps even Germany explicitly? I hope Caballos Rufino’s full edition provides us with further illumination on these issues, and indeed on the bronze tablet as an object and its provenance, if it is possible to recover at the moment. The find of three joining fragments together implies a metal detectorist find, or an illegal excavation, and one hopes for further fragments coming to light. But in the meanwhile we have an important testimony to the context of the first imperial succession, early documentary evidence for financing the privileges of legionary veterans, and arguably – the earliest surviving Tiberian document, predating his dies imperii.

(I am very grateful to Andrew Lintott, Pierangelo Buongiorno, Greg Rowe, and Panayiotis Christoforou for discussing this document with me. They are obviously not responsible for what I have made of their suggestions, particularly for the more radical hypothesis about the consuls.)

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