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Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars: Commentary

Since this is a biographical sketch rather than a study of the whole period, the focus is kept firmly on Tiberius himself. We do not even learn exactly what happened to Sejanus. Although we are being given the impression of a contemptible old man launching a shabby plot against his own lieutenant (with the clear implication that he and Sejanus deserve each other) Suetonius also suggests that everything happens because Tiberius commands it: Tiberius detains the provincial governors in Rome, he had Agrippina and her sons transferred from prison to prison, he sends messages to the Senate and draws up contingency plans in case the plot backfires. The implication is that the political system is itself so rotten that even a creature such as Tiberius, in his dotage and physically remote from Rome (note that he does not even return from Capri after Sejanus has been successfully removed), commands absolute obedience. Suetonius’ listeners and readers were also living under emperors with absolute power: most of those under whom he lived were capable rulers, but the violent reign of the erratic Domitian (81-96 AD) was a reminder that the system could still give power to the unstable or the despotic.

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