For the renaissance playwright interested in ancient Rome, the appearance in translation of the works of Tacitus in 1591/8 and Livy in 1600 offered new perspectives, for these historians concentrated not on the biographies of notable individuals,* but on the workings of a state, with a Republican slant at odds with the absolutism of the Tudor and Stuart monarchies. Individuals may still drive events, but it is the events themselves that are significant, beyond their effect on individual actors. Tacitus, in particular, with his probing into the darkest secrets of state and exposure of the sinister motives behind each action of his tyrannical emperors, is a potentially subversive model, and it is small wonder that Jonson, after making such powerful use of Tacitus, found himself in political trouble, accused of popery and treason. As the historian Cremutius Cordus finds in the play, historical distance is no defence against charges of subversion, for paranoid authority can always discover hidden meanings beneath apparent ideological innocence. Yet although Tacitus provides a model, as a reputable source and ethical guide, Jonson does not slavishly adhere to him, for all his professed fidelity. An interesting departure comes in a scene in the first act, in which Tiberius refuses a second temple to be dedicated to him. Tacitus compares this refusal unfavourably with the willingness of the previous emperor, Augustus, to have such a shrine built. As a nameless citizen comments:
Princes haue all other things at will; one thing they should insatiably seeke for, which is to leaue a happie memorie after them: for by contemning of fame, the contemne the virtues which engender it. [from the translation by Henry Savile and Richard Greneway]
Augustus, in consenting to have temples dedicated to him, shows that he seeks the fame and glory that will perpetuate his name in the permanence of stone, and that, like Hercules and Rome’s founder, Romulus, he will ascend to a divine level. Tiberius, in his refusal to follow such a route, merely wishes that will be thought of fondly when he is gone―a favourable judgement that may well soon be forgotten, not a lasting renown. Tacitus does mention that this reluctance was read by some as a sign of modesty, by others as a sign of uneasiness, but he does not elaborate on these explanations, only on the one of degeneracy, of not aiming high enough. The emperor’s aversion to being put on a par with the gods is here a mark against him, not one in his favour. How this is compatible with Tacitus’ admiration of the Republican constitution and his disapproval of too much power being placed in one man’s hands is unclear; perhaps it is simply that a rigid hostility towards Tiberius leads him to condemn all his actions (indeed, elsewhere, Tacitus states that the emperor’s chief concern in choosing an heir was future glory).
Jonson adapts the above passage, but puts the words into the mouth of Tiberius, giving them a quite different flavour:
The rest of greatnesse princes may command,
And (therefore) may neglect, only, a long,
A lasting, high, and happy memorie
They should, without being satisfied, pursue.
Contempt of fame begets contempt of virtue.
There appears at first to be an inconsistency in simultaneously praising fame and rejecting the kind of monument that celebrates it. Tiberius, who has consented already to one shrine in his honour, does not want to rival Augustus’s memory with a proliferation of temples; he is happy, he claims, with his humanity, and wishes to be ‘truly a prince’, not a god. His protestation of mortality and desire that posterity should know it might indicate that he is after a different kind of fame, a fame based on his modesty, and he goes on to say that the good report of succeeding generations will serve as temples and statues for him. This promotion, however, of an image of an emperor content with ordinariness hardly comes across as sincere. Jonson, in this speech, initially follows Tacitus; with the last five lines, he diverges from his source in order to show Tiberius’s deviousness. After refusing to be deified in stone, the emperor is deified in speech by the flattery of Satrius, who calls him, or his words, ‘divine’, and of Sejanus, who says that he has assumed the powers of all the oracles. Likewise, at Tiberius’s initial entrance, his command that the court regard him as human and worship the gods instead is answered by Sejanus comparing him to a god, and his professed abhorrence of flattery is dismissed as bogus by Arruntius, Cordus and Silius. This dissembling, however, is not in order to disguise a real appetite for fame, delusions of divinity, and love of flattery: he is genuinely contemptuous of all those things. His tactic of publicly rejecting them before quietly acquiescing to them is merely a way of reassuring himself of his earthly power, which is all that he is interested in. Later in the play, when pressed by Sejanus to act against his enemies, he demurs that ‘long hate pursues such acts’; then, when Sejanus seeks to marry his daughter-in-law, he declares that princes, unlike other men, must always direct ‘their maine actions still to fame’. But on both occasions, his seeming concern for the judgement of succeeding generations is a ruse, for display only; he lives only for the here and now, for the maintenance of his power, which itself is valued primarily for the means it provides to pursue his pederastic desires unchecked. Jonson is deeply ambivalent here. Tiberius’s total immersion in the present and indifference towards the future mark him out for condemnation along Tacitean lines, but at the same time, that it is he who utters the line ‘Contempt of fame begets contempt of virtue’ should make us suspicious, not only of him, but of the ethical position his words insincerely express. Tiberius’s opponents certainly retain a faith in that position, but for all their nobility, as political operators they are so much his inferior that we might wonder whether he is right to disdain fame.
The Machiavellian brilliance of Tiberius remains supreme at the end of the play, long after he has departed the scene; his victory is achieved in absentia (an absence ironically encouraged by Sejanus). The other great winner, Macro, unleashes a sickening carnage so bloody that a mother’s grief-maddened cries are such as ‘might affright the gods, and force the sunne/Runne back-ward to the east, nay, make the old/Deformed Chaos rise againe’. The closing platitudes of horrified senators in no way restore a sense of order or steadiness, no matter how chastened; Jonson, in his final movement, lurches shockingly into a frenzy of violence and seems to leave us there abruptly. There is more going on than this, however. Arruntius, a virtuous but rather windy and ineffective senator prone to getting the wrong end of the stick, makes an uncharacteristically accurate prediction that Macro will prove to be a worse monster than the defeated Sejanus; this points to a future that lies beyond the scope of the play’s action, a future in which Macro allies himself with the notorious Caligula. Caligula, indeed, is a character in the play, but he has only three lines of speech and shows none of the debauched cruelty for which he became infamous, so what is he doing here? A brief but crucial scene between him and Macro shows how Jonson uses a history outside his dramatic time-frame to deepen and ironize his tragic vision. Macro advises the young prince to go to Tiberius and to put himself at his mercy, a course of action that will eventually lead to his being named heir to the empire; we next hear of him after his brothers have been arrested, when it is reported that his escape is a source of displeasure to Sejanus and that the people have begun to favour him; his sexual appetites are attested, and he is described as ‘the rising sunne’. Jonson does not need to make more of Caligula than this; the name itself conveys plenty. Anyone familiar with Roman history will know what comes next, will perceive the intricate chain of ironies. Sejanus is brought down by Tiberius, whose instinct for self-preservation picks the right instrument with regard to Sejanus, but entirely the wrong instrument with regard to Caligula, whose alliance with Macro will ultimately result in Tiberius’s own murder, as Tacitus relates. The latter’s inability to see what history has in store for him in exemplified by his confidence that Macro and Sejanus will, like two poisons, destroy each other. Had Tiberius not appointed Macro, the risk of Sejanus acting against him would have remained; equally, however, had Macro not been employed, Sejanus would have been free to dispose of Caligula, and the really fatal threat to Tiberius would never have emerged. Had Macro not been employed, he would never have become an accomplice to Caligula, who repaid his services by forcing him to commit suicide. If Macro had been employed, but not collaborated with Caligula, he would still have been able to get rid of Sejanus, remained in Tiberius’s favour, whilst Caligula would either have been destroyed by Sejanus or else would never have attained the position that would prove to be the undoing of both Macro and Tiberius.** All these possible courses, at some point, lay open, but the characters are unable to see them; the tide of history is flowing one way, and they are carried blindly along it. Even the master-manipulator Tiberius cannot control or foretell the significance of his actions. As it turns out, Caligula ascends to the imperial throne, reveals himself a greater monster than Tiberius, Sejanus and Macro combined, before he in turn is assassinated. Macro and Tiberius are victorious as the play concludes, but their victory is not secure. And Rome continues its path of intrigue, murder, betrayal, corruption, war and disorder until its eventual collapse. All this lies before it as the mob’s frenzy subsides at the end of Sejanus. There is not even the comfort of reflecting that all this has passed, that the saga of Ancient Rome has run its course, that there is an end to the nightmare. Jonson ends on a note that is both certain and uncertain: fearfully unsure of what will follow, and at the same time all too cognizant of it.
Jonson’s characters, in commenting on the action, continually reveal the limitations of their understanding. When Sejanus falls, his demise is taken by the senators Arruntius and Lepidus as a prime example of the turning of Fortune’s wheel, which punishes in particular those who place their trust in her.
Who would trust slippery chance?
They, that would make
Themselves her spoile : and foolishly forget,
When shee doth flatter, that shee come to prey.
Fortune, thou hadst no deitie, if men
Had wisdome : we have placed thee so high,
By fond beliefe in thy felicitie.
Lepidus is not denying the existence of the goddess Fortune, or claiming that only the foolish believe in her; he is reflecting the old Stoic attitude that the more one relies on Fortune, the more confidence one invests in her continued provision of wealth, health and power, the graver the exposure to potential misery, for fickleness is the nature of the goddess, and one day she will come to prey. Sejanus, the argument runs, has trusted all to Fortune, has exalted her above all else, and while she favoured him, he enjoyed his success; now that she has turned her wheel full circle, he has met with ruin. Stoics such as Lepidus, by not placing their trust in the earthly things within Fortune’s jurisdiction, are better able to withstand the buffets of her vagaries, even if they cannot make themselves immune to them. Another noble senator, Silius, earlier defies Fortune by committing suicide, evading her on his own terms; Fortune, when ‘vertue doth oppose, must lose her threats’. An alternative explanation is offered by a third senator, Terentius, according to whom Sejanus grew ‘proud, and carelesse of the gods’; by blaspheming against them and denying their powers, he incurred their wrath. Prior to his downfall, Sejanus had indeed claimed to acknowledge Fortune as his sole deity, lending support to both theories, but while neither Lepidus nor Terentius apparently notice it, their arguments are in conflict with one another. Is Sejanus undone by the impersonal course of Fortune’s wheel, or by the vengeance of the other gods, angry at being neglected and mocked? One being true makes the other irrelevant.
There are other complications. First, while Sejanus may be impious, other, more upstanding characters are scarcely more devout; indeed, Arruntius bitterly castigates the gods for being negligent and callous (his reverence being reserved for the heroes of the Republican past). Second, the idea that Sejanus’s excessive veneration of Fortune is responsible for his undoing is undermined by the fact that, until the last act, Sejanus displays no signs of devotion towards the goddess, mentioning her only twice. The first reference comes in the course of an attempt to woo a potential co-conspirator to his side; it is this other man, Eudemus, not Sejanus himself, who is tempted with the promise of Fortune’s rewards. The second reference is made with regard to Sejanus’s enemies, whom he pictures blithely drinking from her cup, unaware of the plans that are being laid against them. Sejanus only pledges his allegiance to the deity once he thinks he has attained power and security; in working to acquire these, he is shown to depend only on his wit and cunning. By the beginning of Act V, under the impression that he is above the reach of human and divine might, he has come to ascribe part of his apparent triumph to Fortune’s favour, as if he cannot quite believe his luck―after all, it is one thing to plan, another for one’s plans to succeed. It is at this point that he affirms his dedication, repudiating all other gods and adoring her image at home. But what he does not know is that at the very point he believes himself to be unassailable, the events leading towards his destruction have already been set in motion and are hurrying towards the denouement. Fortune’s wheel has turned before Sejanus has even mounted it. Reports of bad omens that his followers find unsettling―smoke emanating from a statue, servants breaking their necks, birds shunning an augury―provoke Sejanus only into expressing contempt for superstition and religion, Fortune being the sole exception. Even here, though he claims to adore the goddess, his words are not particularly pious:
To her, I care not, if (for satisfying
Your scrupulous phant’sies) I goe offer. Bid
Our priest prepare us honny, milke, and poppy,
His masculine odours, and night-vestments : say,
Our rites are instant, which perform’d, you’ll see
How vaine, and worthy laughter, your feares be.
Sejanus, believing his position secure, is not moved to offer sacrifice even to the one deity he recognizes; he simply consents to Terentius’s plea, and does so grudgingly. After the rite is performed before an image of Fortune, the witnesses are terrified when they see the image turn away, but even here Sejanus, far from betraying any doubt or fear, overturns the altar in scorn of ‘juggling mysterie’, ‘superstitious lights’ and ‘coos’ning ceremonies’. So swelled with pride is he that he proclaims himself superior to Fortune. It is possible, of course, to interpret this behaviour as over-compensating bravado masking the terror beneath, but the cracks only appear once he has been informed of a non-supernatural piece of news: the arrival of Macro. Reports of further ill omens are ignored; Macro’s return is all that matters. Just as his success made him superstitious towards Fortune’s powers, the prospect of catastrophe now does the same. When Sejanus erroneously comes to believe that Macro has come with good news, he changes his mind again and believes Fortune is on his side. So Sejanus, far from being a blind idolater of Fortune, is tardy, insolent and inconstant in his allegiance.
In asserting his dominance over Fortune, Sejanus seems ridiculous, his arrogance no more than empty posturing in the face of the calamity he cannot avoid. Is the superstitious dread of Terentius any less ridiculous? On the face of it, he is vindicated by the events that follow the signs and wonders that strike such fear in him. But the text is ambiguous; Jonson provides detailed stage directions for the performance of the rites to Fortune, but there is no direction concerning the image, no confirmation that it really does move. In any case, Jonson has already provided grounds for uncertainty; when Sejanus is told that a statue of him has been sending out smoke he immediately suspects that a concealed fire is the explanation. Any production representing the moving image clearly to the audience (as did the RSC production of 2005 with a turning statue) would be using the same kind of trickery and illusion. Theatrical effects are but juggling mysteries achieved with technology; miracles can be faked. More importantly, the characters who are disturbed by the omens lack the knowledge that readers and spectators have of Macro’s prior employment; this distance allows us to view their superstitious panic critically. We know the real cause of Tiberius’s change of heart, something no other character discovers, for while Tiberius does mention in his letter to the Senate Sejanus’s request to marry his daughter-in-law, no great prominence is given to this fact; it is merely one charge amidst the general insinuation of conspiratorial ambition and tyranny―which consist mostly of acts that Tiberius himself approved. Sejanus’s involvement in the murder of the emperor’s son would be a strong motive for Tiberius to turn against his former favourite, but this is only revealed after Sejanus’s death, and was not previously suspected. Even Sejanus remains ignorant until the end of his error. Jonson makes a crucial departure from his sources in having Tiberius recruit Macro before, not after, his retirement to Capri, a decision that, as well as improving dramatic concision, earlier exposes to us the shaky foundations of Sejanus’ supreme self-confidence―an exposure other characters are unable to see.
Fortune may be a large, impersonal force, the workings of a blind, fickle goddess turning a wheel, but in its effects, it operates on a personal level of rise and fall, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, etc. As Erich Auerbach puts it in Mimesis, the operation of Fortune ‘affects only one person or a few people, while the rest of the world appears to remain apart from it and indeed witness the extraordinary event from a spectator’s viewpoint’. The spectator may draw a general lesson from the event, but they are not implicated in it. It is this spectator’s viewpoint that is shared by Lepidus and Arruntius at the end of Sejanus; they read the title character’s fall moralistically, as an exemplum of Fortune’s mutability (or, as in Terentius’s case, of the dangers of provoking the gods). Even though they foresee that this is not the end of Rome’s troubles, they don’t quite see themselves as being caught up in events; perhaps they imagine themselves in the future in the same position moralizing over Macro’s fall from grace. Fortune in essence is a matter of who’s up, who’s down, and one has the option of refusing, like Lepidus, to play its game. Jonson allows us a wider perspective, for he is not concerned merely with the fall of his protagonist, but with Rome’s collective tragedy, hence the referencing of both its happier past and even grimmer future. Classical historiography attached an importance to the power of human agency that was later obscured by the Christian attitude of de contempt mundi; in the Renaissance, these two traditions were often fused together.*** What we have in Sejanus is not a ‘fusion’, however; the traditions do not mingle. Lepidus and Arruntius from their position think that they are witnessing an individual’s reversal of fortune, which drags Sejanus’s family down with it. But this is not our position; we glimpse something of reversal, but we do not see the whole shape of its narrative, the arc of Sejanus’s rise and fall. It is there in the play, but compressed and truncated; it is an angle on events, a way of looking at them that partially overlaps with the alternative that Jonson offers us. But if Jonson is not presenting us with a full-scale medieval Fortune tragedy, neither does he insist on the importance of individual agency. Sejanus, Macro and Tiberius may think that they are in control of events, but they are not; they are governed by a force that rather resembles historical necessity, which drives forward not just individuals such as Sejanus, but also the undifferentiated mob that tears him to pieces. Even Arruntius and Lepidus are not immune; a reader of Tacitus would know that Macro would soon goad Arruntius to suicide. It may be possible to turn one’s back on Fortune, but there is no private space where one can shelter from history, no haven safe from its reach. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is the fact that Arruntius and Lepidus are included as characters in a history play, part of the narrative corruption, tyranny and horror. They are mere witnesses of Sejanus’s personal tragedy, standing relatively safely on the side-lines. But they cannot extricate themselves from Rome’s tragedy or from the historical process. It is in this context that Tiberius’s scepticism towards fame seems base but not unreasonable, for not even posthumous fame can provide stability secure against the deluge of history, as there is no surety that the noblest actions will be remembered favourably, or that the wickedest ones will be condemned. Tiberius’s enemies exalt the memory of Cassius and Brutus, but by Jonson’s time they were often vilified as murderous rebels, while Livia, who conspires in the poisoning of her husband Drusus, is encouraged by these words of a fellow conspirator:
The ages that succeed, and stand far off
To gaze at your high prudence, shall admire
And reckon it an act, without your sexe :
It hath that rare apparance.
As it happens, Eudemus is proved wrong, but this one instance of evil being recognized as such is no guarantee that history will always disclose the truth.
To write of ancient Rome at all was necessarily to write both of its greatness and of its decline and eventual destruction, so that to dramatize any episode from its vast timeframe was to encode that arc of rise-and-fall in the text, or to emblematize it as if in a design above the stage, in ever-present reminder. The splendour and the passing into oblivion of that splendour were inextricable from the very name ‘Rome’. The rise-and-fall arc could easily be presented as an epitome of the operation of Fortune (the city/empire being read as an individual), or of Fate. But to do so would mean viewing the past with a certain serenity or detachment, something that Jonson seems to have found inadequate, as inadequate as the closing words of Lepidus, Arruntius and Terentius. The great historical forces and currents that gather and propel all before them do not cease, and Jonson makes their terrible power felt even today.
*As did Plutarch, who had been previously translated in 1579 in a version by Sir Thomas North that provided Shakespeare with source material.
**Jonson’s other Roman tragedy Catiline is similarly ironic. The play ends with the hero Cicero exulting in triumph, but oblivious to the fact that Julius Caesar, the conspirator Cicero decides not to bring to justice, will shortly succeed in bringing an end to the Republic. The weaker, initial threat is dealt with thoroughly, but the more dangerous one is left to prosper. As Caesar’s treachery becomes clearer and more prominent as the play progresses, so the title character fades from view, even as Cicero’s attempts to thwart Catiline becomes the main focus. Thus the more we see of Cicero’s resourcefulness in defending the republic, the less serious appears the menace he opposes. The chorus ends the first act by condemning Rome’s lethargy, but the man who rouses the city also allows it to retreat back into lethargy by his very success; it is the degree of his success in saving the Republic that leads to his future failure and the end of the Republic.
***A point made by Irving Ribner in his essay ‘History and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare’, included in Shakespeare’s Histories: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. William A. Armstrong (Harmondsworth, 1972).