To what extent does the evidence support the view that Roman emperors paid very little attention to the administration of the city of Rome between 31 BC-AD 96?
To what extent does the evidence support the view that Roman emperors paid very little attention to the administration of the city of Rome between 31 BC-AD 96? (50)-
Although there is evidence supporting the view that some of the Roman emperors paid very little attention to the administration of the city of Rome between 31 BC to AD 96, it is not substantial; nor does it suggest that all of the Roman emperors were equal in their actions to maintaining proper administration of the city of Rome. Indeed, the sources provide many clear distinctions between the diverse ways of ruling each emperor used.
Every Roman emperor organised the City in different ways, with structures, boundaries and districts. Emperor Claudius extended the pomerium (sacred boundary) of Rome when he was in power, Augustus being the first to do so during his reign. This followed “the ancient tradition whereby those who have expanded the empire are awarded the privilege of also extending the boundary of Rome” (Tact. Annals. 12.23). Claudius was the first emperor since Augustus to exercise this right, thus showing the people of Rome that he had a great respect for tradition and the rule of the defied Augustus. In addition to this, extending the pomerium showed the people of Rome what territory they had gained and also make space for the ever-growing population of Rome. As well as extending the pomerium, Augustus also “divided the city into districts and wards” (Suet. DA. 30). These 14 districts were further divided into 265 vici (wards) which, formed the backbone of the new organisational structure of the city. The vicomagistri, who ran the vici, were slaves and freedmen “locally elected” (Suet. DA. 30); this gave the slaves and freedmen the opportunity to have a role to play in the organisation of Rome and in their lives. Claudius’ and Augustus’ roles in organising the city of Rome clearly dispute the suggestion that Roman emperors paid very little attention to the administration of the city of Rome; both emperors increased the ease in which they city could be organised for future emperors as well as allowing all of the people to have distinct roles in the running of the City.
The supply of corn in Rome was of the greatest importance and so is arguably the turning point in which an emperor can be deemed a failure, paying little attention to the administration of the city of Rome, or a success. It is clear how vital the cura annonae (corn supply) was in Rome when Tacitus writes in Annals 1.7 about Gaius Turranius’ role in the administration of the corn supply in Rome; Turranius was the first praefectus annonae (prefect of the corn supply) and held the position for over forty years. The praefectus annonae bore greater power in Rome than the Senate as he could directly change the way the Emperor was viewed by the people; his power was so great that he could in fact generate a rebellion should he choose to. It was Augustus that introduced the position of praefectus annonae and so clearly realised he had to keep the supply top of his list, indicating that he paid a lot of attention to the administration of the city. Suetonius writes in Claudius 15-20 “Claudius always interested himself in the proper upkeep of the city and the regular arrival of grain supplies” adding that when the supply was scarce “a mob stopped Claudius in the Forum and pelted him so hard with curses and stale crusts”. The incident of scarce corn supply suggests that Claudius did not pay close enough attention to the administration of the city of Rome; however, Claudius hugely redeemed himself when he became increasingly attentive, offering “a large bounty for every new grain-transport ship built”, and an exemption from the Papian Poppean law if a Roman citizen or citizenship if not. In addition to this, Claudius funded the building of a new harbour at Ostia to increase supply.
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The grain supply was in fact, of such great importance than even poorer emperors kept it at the forefront of their minds. For example, Suetonius writes in Nero 16, Nero substituted “a simple grain distribution for public banquets”, although this was a social innovation, which was rather unpopular with the Roman people, it did show that supply could be managed even by the most unpopular of emperors. Similarly, Suetonius writes that Domitian also “cancelled the public grain issue, restored the custom of holding formal dinners…”. As well as supporting the view that disliked emperors could still administer the corn supply, this passage also serves as evidence that either Vespasian or Titus had changed the distribution in between years. This can be taken as a sign that either Vespasian or Titus paid more attention than Nero and Domitian to the views of the majority of the people that did not support the implementations of banquets or formal dinners. In addition to this, Suetonius states that Domitian issued “an edict that forbade the further planting of vines in Italy”. This was due to the fact there was a large food shortage in Italy but a lucrative store of wine; too many people possessed vineyards and too few grew grain so Domitian’s actions displayed clear attention to the administration of the city in this case.
Fire, along with corn supply, was one of the biggest issues every emperor had to deal with, as they were frightfully common and caused mass destruction across the city of Rome. Unlike the corn supply, there was no consistency with how each emperor dealt with fires. For example, “Tiberius showed large-scale generosity no more than twice”, using his own money to rebuild, (Suet. Tiberius. 48) but Tacitus accuses Nero of actually starting the Great Fire of AD 64 as an excuse to build himself a new palace. Although Tacitus does not outright say Nero did start the fire, he very much implies this with his phrasing of sentences such as “whether it was accidental or caused by a criminal act on the part of the Emperor” and “Nero profited by his country’s ruin to build a new palace”. It is difficult to dispute the accusation due to Nero’s history with criminal activity; however, it must be borne in mind that Tacitus was also the one to accuse Nero of such criminal activity and that Tacitus is renowned for taking out his anger towards Domitian (whose reign he lived under) on other Emperors throughout his writing and so is likely to have used this as a way of shunning Nero’s reign. On the other hand, it is known that Nero did indeed build himself a new palace in light of the fire as parts of it still stand today. Either way, Nero’s reaction to the fire was poor as he put his needs before his people’s; the building of the Domus Aurea (‘Golden House’) was deemed, quite rightly, as an act of outrageously poor behaviour, especially given the fact it took up nearly a third of the space that could have been used to rebuild.
In contrast, many emperors dealt with the issue of fires in much more respectable, responsible and reputable ways. Tiberius’ generosity has already been mentioned, but Claudius and Vespasian also fall into the same category of compassion and consideration. Claudius is recorded to have sat “with bags of coins piled before him, recruiting fire-fighters” (Suet. Claudius. 18) on one occasion, demonstrating a true effort to restore order in Rome, following catastrophic events. Not only did Claudius provide jobs, he was actively involved with administrating the solution, even if it was deemed to be beneath the dignity of the emperor. Additionally, Vespasian “authorised anyone who pleased to take over vacant sites” and “[collected] the first basketful of rubble and carrying it away on his shoulders” (Suet. Vespasian. 8). Not only did Vespasian put others before himself, he too took an active part in the restoration and rebuilding of Rome. From this, it can be suggested that, in the case of fires, there were some emperors that paid full attention to the administration of the city and some that did not; it cannot, however, be said that Roman emperors paid very little attention as it is quite the opposite in the majority of instances of fires.
The water supply in Rome was revolutionary in its day and emperors such as Augustus and Claudius made sure that this remained the case. Dio writes that when Augustus appointed Agrippa as aedile, he “repaired all the public buildings and all the streets, cleaned out the sewers, and sailed through them”. However, it is unlikely that Dio could have known for certain this event actually happened when he was writing almost three centuries after it occurred. Agrippa used his own money, realising the importance of keeping a good water supply, sailing through the sewers shows Agrippa taking an active part in the maintenance of Rome’s water supply, much like Vespasian carrying the first bricks away from the scene of the fire. Augustus had also created the curators riparium Tiberis who were given the responsibility of ensuring that the Tiber was properly dredged so that it did not become blocked, again, demonstrating the importance of the water supply in Rome and Augustus’ attentive attitude towards it. In addition to this, Agrippa repaired the Aqua Appia, Aqua Abio, Aqua Marcia and the Aqua Virgo (Frontius. L17). Likewise, Claudius showed strong attentive behaviour towards the water supply in Rome, digging channels from the Tiber to the sea in AD 46 to relieve the City from the dangers of flooding and directing water from the Curtian and Caerulean springs towards the Aqua Claudia and Anop Novus.
Law courts and the act of justice played just as big a role in Ancient Rome as they do today; fair trial and justice played an integral part in the administration of the city of Rome. Like the corn supply, even terrible emperors understood the importance of a fair trial. Augustus, proved to be the leader in keeping a high level of equality and justice within Rome, “remaining in court until nightfall” even if he suffered from illness at the time (Suet. DA. 33). Suetonius’s views are slightly tinted due to his bias towards Roman emperors, particularly Augustus; however, he proves a useful source because of the access he had to sources that had been restricted to others (due to his role as Imperial Secretary under the reign of Hadrian). The emperor was not expected to do such things, which proves Augustus’ dedication to the act of justice. Claudius remained to act in a very much like Augustus, showing a conscientious approach to acting as a judge, despite any other events such as his birthday (Suet. Claudius. 14). However, Suetonius’ view of Claudius very much differs from Tacitus’ who accuses the Emperor of using the opportunity of being a judge for “illicit gain”; it is likely that Claudius’ behaviour falls somewhere in the middle, due to Suetonius’ background in over-emphasising any positives that an Emperor offered, and under-stating any negatives, as well as Tacitus’ previously mentioned reputation for shunning all past Emperors due to living under the reign of Domitian. Tacitus’ reputation allows his positive statements to be taken as legitimate, which means that his description of Nero’s actions regarding law and justice are likely to be true. Tacitus states that Nero dismissed any forms of “bribery and favouritism” showing that he treated everyone as an equal. The evidence gives the impression that the emperors were very attentive towards the act of justice, again opposing the view that the Roman emperors paid very little attention to the administration of Rome.
In conclusion, the weight of the evidence tends to primarily disagree with the view that the Roman emperors paid very little attention to the administration of the city of Rome, although it varies with each aspect of administration and each emperor. The general organisation of the city predominantly falls down to the work of Augustus and Claudius, whereas the corn supply was something that every single emperor focused on. Likewise, the act of justice bore just as great an importance to each emperor as the corn supply did. In contrast, the fires in Rome were dealt with very differently, with most emperors dealing with them very well and taking an active part in the rebuilding but some, for example, Nero, showing exceedingly selfish behaviour and a worrying lack of attention to the administration of the City. Out of all the emperors, Augustus and Claudius were the most consistent with their concern for the administration of the city, demonstrating attentive and focused behaviour and actions in every aspect of the City.