Behind an enigmatic main title lies a long-standing historical puzzle: how did the Roman emperor come to be supreme judge? The first answer proposed was simple, and dates back to the time of Theodor Mommsen in the mid-nineteenth century. The power was conferred constitutionally, by law, and it was an answer feebly supported by claims put forward by the third-century Greek historian Cassius Dio and by reference to a lex regia in the sixth-century Digest of Roman law—feebly because of their late date. More recently scholars have preferred different solutions, and now Kaius Tuori, in The Emperor of Law, offers one based on narratives, a word that figures freely throughout his work. Narratology has long played a role in ancient literary studies, so it is only natural that narrative should catch the attention of historians. Tuori is calling on Tacitus and Suetonius, but on other authors, too, who are not historians—indeed on any author who has a story to tell that reveals something about the development of the emperor’s jurisdiction (or his adjudication, which is sometimes the author’s preferred term). In fact, Tuori starts with Cicero, as the orator in 46 b.c.e. defends Quintus Ligarius before the dictator Julius Caesar, who was, Tuori stresses, emphatically not an emperor. From this point, Tuori proceeds chronologically, ending with the Severan dynasty in the third century. Tuori’s task is thus prodigious in the quantity and scope of the sources that he has to examine, both ancient writers and inscriptions and exacting modern scholarship (wrestling as he goes with biographers such as Suetonius who described their subjects as model judges on the bench and bloodthirsty madmen off it), and one must salute his heroism. His organization into periods—Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius to Trajan, the “ideal” Hadrian and the Antonines, who saw the full development of the libellus system and thereby the delivery of justice throughout the empire, Caracalla and the Severans (Tuori hesitates on the motives for the grant of empire-wide citizenship by Caracalla, the Constitutio Antoniniana), and a concluding chapter—is compelling. And there is a massive and valuable appendix of known instances of imperial adjudication from Caesar to Severus Alexander, with sources. Handling such quantities of diverse material has its dangers. Most obviously, it requires first-class indexing and bibliography, and this volume provides them. Secondly, it might seem to risk monotony, even dreariness; though that it is far from the case. But it is bound to mean that the author encounters any number of knotty problems on his onward path, some quite notorious, and inevitably will fail to satisfy in some places. There will be few readers, even non-classicists, who are unfamiliar with the mysterious exile by Augustus of the poet Ovid, which has attracted one writer after another, and countless readers. Tuori, concerned with judgment, renounces inquiry into Ovid’s offense, which surely was relevant. The method in general has a weakness, tempting scholars to put too much faith in sources such as the adulatory Pliny the Younger and Aelius Aristides, and it is a test for Tuori in this Augustan chapter. He comes up with a striking solution to the Ovid problem, making him an example of Augustus’s vital power of making exceptions. Whatever Ovid’s offense, Tuori’s Ovid declares roundly that Augustus is on the one hand a gentle paterfamilias, inclined to mercy, and on the other a cruel monster, far different from the figure the emperor presents in his own Res Gestae Divi Augusti. Another striking exposition concerns the opening of Vespasian’s reign in 70 c.e. and the incomplete and much-discussed Lex de imperio Vespasiani. The author takes the clauses of this law to be restrictive, limiting what the new and upstart emperor could do. This seems highly unlikely when it belongs to a moment when Vespasian’s forces were in control of the Senate and his predecessor Vitellius had been crushed and killed. Rather, the enactment laid down the precedents that the absent Vespasian’s partisans thought that he would deign to follow, adding for good measure in the discretionary clause that whatever course of action he considered to be in the interests of the state should be legitimate. Less seriously, Tuori shares with a large number of scholars an overestimate of the importance of the offense of maiestas, that of diminishing the emperor’s majesty, derived from diminishing that of the Roman state. This has been caught from its use by Tacitus; but the spread of capital offenses under maiestas was much wider than that. Perhaps Tuori’s greatest successes lie with the cases found in epigraphic documents (all translated into English) where the “narratives” are those of the participants themselves, as with the humble villagers of Syrian Goharia in dispute under Caracalla about a local priesthood. But there can be little doubt that Tuori’s overall method of following such narratives, however diverse they are, is sound. He goes where the sources lead him, tracing each tributary in its exact wording. All that one might hope for is occasionally a greater crispness in delivering his own verdicts on the evidence before him. That is not all. At the end of the inquiry lurk major problems, of greater relevance today than the first question of the origin of jurisdiction: Did the emperor initiate policy, or did he merely react to petition and prompting? And, when he spoke, was it in his own words or the words of bureaucrats? Rightly, Tuori decides on an emperor who is far more than a merely passive authority reacting to external events: he has principles, even policies, and individual voices have plausibly been detected. The author has indeed produced a work of judgment and sense, one that all students of the imperial legal system will find helpful. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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