Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History

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Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History

By Victoria Emma Pagán

How five prominent Roman historians disclosed events that had been deliberately shrouded in secrecy and silence.



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6 x 9 | 207 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72233-0

Conspiracy is a thread that runs throughout the tapestry of Roman history. From the earliest days of the Republic to the waning of the Empire, conspiracies and intrigues created shadow worlds that undermined the openness of Rome's representational government. To expose these dark corners and restore a sense of order and safety, Roman historians frequently wrote about famous conspiracies and about how their secret plots were detected and the perpetrators punished. These accounts reassured readers that the conspiracy was a rare exception that would not happen again—if everyone remained vigilant.

In this first book-length treatment of conspiracy in Roman history, Victoria Pagán examines the narrative strategies that five prominent historians used to disclose events that had been deliberately shrouded in secrecy and silence. She compares how Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus constructed their accounts of the betrayed Catilinarian, Bacchanalian, and Pisonian conspiracies. Her analysis reveals how a historical account of a secret event depends upon the transmittal of sensitive information from a private setting to the public sphere—and why women and slaves often proved to be ideal transmitters of secrets. Pagán then turns to Josephus's and Appian's accounts of the assassinations of Caligula and Julius Caesar to explore how the two historians maintained suspense throughout their narratives, despite readers' prior knowledge of the outcomes.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Betrayed Conspiracies
    • 1. Sallust: The Catilinarian Conspiracy
    • 2. Livy: The Bacchanalian Affair
    • 3. Tacitus: The Pisonian Conspiracy
  • Part II. Successful Conspiracies
    • 4. Josephus: The Assassination of Caligula
    • 5. Appian: The Assassination of Julius Caesar
  • Conclusion
  • Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Index Locorum

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What we said during the morning meeting will never be known completely because the tape of that conversation is the one with the 18 1/2-minute gap.
—Richard M. Nixon

On October 12, 1973, the United States Court of Appeals ordered President Richard M. Nixon to produce White House tapes and documents that had been subpoenaed in July. Ten days later, Nixon announced his compliance. District Court Judge John J. Sirica requested, among others, tapes for June 20, 1972 (three days after the burglary at the Watergate Hotel). But there was a problem. Rose Mary Woods, Nixon's personal secretary of twenty-three years, told him that she "might have caused a small gap" in the recording of a conversation that took place on June 20 with H. R. Haldeman, White House chief of staff and one of Nixon's closest advisors. Her story was unclear, but it seems that while transcribing, she reached for the telephone to place a call and inadvertently hit the delete button on the tape recorder. She did not notice the mistake until she finished her phone call of "about five minutes."

The gap actually ran for eighteen and a half minutes. Haldeman's successor, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, publicly disparaged Miss Woods: "Typical of a woman," he said, "she did not know the difference between five minutes and one hour of talking." Although the charges of obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence were dropped, her reputation was damaged. A panel of scientific experts examined the tape and concluded that it was unlikely that the erasure was accidental. Did she deliberately erase the tapes? Was she willing to take the blame for someone else's actions? Or was she forced to take the blame for someone else's actions?

The covert operations of Nixon and his accessories came to be known as "Watergate" only once the burglars were apprehended. Whatever their schemes, the actions of the conspirators were brought to a halt, and all their attention turned to covering up evidence of illegal activity. Hence someone, possibly a woman, felt it necessary to erase part of the tape. The silence of eighteen and a half minutes became the focal point for debate, conjecture, and controversy.

In 1997, historian Stanley Kutler, with the help of Public Citizen, a national nonprofit public interest organization, succeeded in obtaining the release of the remaining Nixon tapes from the National Archives. Kutler edited and telescoped the conversations, eliminating what he believed to be "insignificant, trivial, or repetitious." His selection is most fascinating when it comes to his transcription of the gap. Although the tapes preserve more than an hour of conversation for the morning of June 20, Kutler chooses to transcribe only the silence:

June 20, 1972: The President and Haldeman, 11:26 a.m.-12:45 p.m., Executive Office Building

This is the highly publicized "18 1/2-minute gap." Technical and scientific investigations determined that the tape had been electronically erased by unknown persons some time after Alexander P. Butterfield revealed the existence of the Nixon Administration taping system in 1973. H. R. Haldeman's diary entry for this date talks about lengthy meetings with John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, and John Dean, which concluded that it was necessary to keep the FBI from going "beyond what's necessary in developing evidence and that we can keep a lid on that." Haldeman said that he and the President talked about "our counterattack" and "PR offensive."

Where we hear the white noise of erasure, we read the words, "This is the highly publicized '18 1/2 minute gap.'" Notice too that Kutler's transcription is as cryptic as the silence of the erasure. The phrases that he chooses from Haldeman's diary to supplement the gap only highlight the secrecy. "Keep a lid on that" reaffirms the clandestine operations of the conspirators, while "our counterattack" suggests a counterconspiracy. Although over two hundred hours of taped conversations have been released to the public, eighteen and a half minutes of silence nevertheless conceal important information about one of the most elaborate cover-ups of the American presidency.

On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, 268 men and women witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Twenty-two photographers, both amateur and professional, captured the event in still and moving pictures. Abraham Zapruder, with his primitive home-movie equipment, recorded the most complete film, twenty-two seconds beginning from the moment the motorcade turned from Houston onto Elm Street, until the final, fatal shot killed the president, and the limousine accelerated toward the triple underpass. The Zapruder film has become an icon of the turbulent 60s, a nationally recognized image of the violent murder emblematic of the demise of an entire generation hopeful for the social improvement advocated by Kennedy and known as the "New Frontier." For those too young to recall where they were when Kennedy was shot, the movie provides a common experience and unites the gaze of all generations of citizenry on a single focal point.

In the years following the assassination, the Zapruder film became the cornerstone of both the Warren Commission (the board of inquiry created by President Lyndon Johnson on November 29, 1963, to investigate the assassination and headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren) and its detractors. It was believed to be the most objective piece of evidence, capable of providing answers that plagued investigators. Yet, like the break of eighteen and a half minutes in the Nixon tapes, the Zapruder film too contains a significant gap. At the crucial moment of the assassination, the presidential limousine passed in front of a large street sign (now gone), reading Stemmons Freeway Keep Right, which blocked Zapruder's view. President Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and their wives disappeared from sight. Each frame of the film has been scrupulously examined in conjunction with other photographs and eyewitness testimony. At frame 207, the President is seen before the street sign, waving at the crowds. At frame 224 the limousine emerges from behind the street sign, and the president's arms are raised to his neck. He is obviously hit. In the time between frames 207 and 224 (no more than four seconds), in the space behind the Stemmons Freeway sign, an event occurred that will remain unknown. Forensics, ballistics, acoustics, optics: every available scientific method has been applied and reapplied to the evidence. Nevertheless, the street sign in the middle of the screen hides crucial information.

In both examples, the information needed to complete the story and to ensure the continuity of an accurate narrative, one that represents the historical event from beginning to end, cannot be recovered. The erasure of the tape and the disappearance of the limousine behind the sign cause a gap in our knowledge of the sequence of events. In the etymological sense, the evidence, with its root in the Latin verb videre, "to see," is invisible. At these evidential blind spots, the historian, whose etymology is rooted in the Greek idein, "to see," is compelled to conjecture about what really happened. In the absence of fact, the historical accounts of Watergate and the assassination of JFK are left to the Aristotelian devices of probability and necessity. I do not claim that if the eighteen and a half minutes of tape or the four seconds of film were available, then the clouds of conspiracy would dissipate and all chains of causation would be patently clear. But it is around the gaps in the Nixon tapes and the Zapruder film that debates about the details of the conspiracies rage most fiercely. The better a historian is at negotiating these gaps, the more successful he or she is at creating a narrative that is likely to be accepted as the authoritative version, one that leaves little room for the skepticism, opinion, or imagination that can divide and thereby corrode society. A successful conspiracy narrative accounts for all the links in the chain of cause and effect and thereby contains fear and deters citizens from further unrest.

It is no doubt daring—and intentionally startling—to begin a book on conspiracy narratives in Roman history with a discussion of Watergate and the assassination of JFK, but these irresistible modern American events clearly illustrate the problem that compels this study. On the one hand, history is a forum in which to exhibit the deeds of men and women, so that they not fade into oblivion. But because conspiracy is a hidden, secret event, it resists—defies—exposition. In recording any conspiracy, important facts always remain in the shadows; to tell the tale of a conspiracy is to guess at a very great deal. So how does one reveal something that is deliberately kept secret? How does one speak with any authority on matters about which one knows little or nothing for certain? Of course, all historians face uncertainty and ignorance about their subject matter at some point. For all these reasons, I maintain that a conspiracy is an ideal circumstance in which to observe how a historian confronts the limits of knowledge.


Conspiracy plagued Rome from its beginning. According to Livy, the mysterious death of Rome's founder Romulus gave rise to rumors that the senators had plotted against him (1.16.4). The disaffected sons of Rome's fourth king, Ancus Marcius, conspired to assassinate Tarquinius Priscus because he was grooming his adopted son Servius Tullius for the throne. Servius was, they argued, nothing but a foreigner and the son of a slave woman (1.40). Immediately upon the assassination of Tarquinius Priscus, his wife Tanaquil concealed the death until the position of her stepson Servius was secure (1.41). The change from kingdom to republic also occasioned a conspiracy, for members of the family of the expelled Tarquinius Superbus plotted to restore him as king. They sent envoys supposedly to recover Superbus' property, but they in fact enlisted conspirators in secret. A slave, overhearing conversations and intercepting letters meant for Superbus, betrayed the conspirators to the consuls (2.3-5).

At the height of Roman expansion, the senate enacted a senatus consultum that called for the dissolution of the large-scale worship of Bacchus. Livy reports that more than seven thousand men and women were participants in the so-called Bacchanalian conspiracy (39.17.6). The restive last days of the republic were fertile ground for malcontents like Catiline who recruited the aid of foreigners. Calpurnia tried in vain to warn Caesar of the Ides of March; his assassination precipitated a course of events culminating in the reign of Augustus, who was himself vulnerable to repeated threats of conspiracy.

Of course, the successive Julio-Claudians fell prey to murderous plots. The suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Augustus, Livia's concealment of it, and her schemes to secure the position of her stepson Tiberius echo the death of Tarquinius Priscus and the way Tanaquil jockeyed for her stepson's position. Josephus' lengthy account of the assassination of Caligula attributes the incipient conspiracy in part to the maltreatment of a woman. Agrippina the Younger plotted to kill her husband Claudius; she was, in turn, murdered by her own son Nero. Domitian was assassinated in a plot that involved his wife. According to the late antique collection of biographies known as the Historia Augusta, the tyrannical actions of the emperor Commodus drove his sister to conspire to assassinate him; according to Dio, her motives were suspect. The plan backfired, resulting in her exile and execution.

Clearly conspiracies and assassinations in Roman history are not hard to find, and many more examples could be added to this abbreviated catalogue. Roman politics appear to be synonymous with intrigue, and no conspiracy is complete, it seems, without the involvement of a woman, a slave, or a sometimes even a foreigner. Conspiracy is a particularly dangerous crisis of legitimacy, because the conspirators' clandestine actions run counter to the most fundamental principle of res publica: that all actions concerning Rome be conducted in public. The secrecy of conspiracy completely undermines the general operation of Roman politics and society. Therefore, conspiracy carries especially heavy emotional and moral burdens. This book seeks to understand how the Roman historians talk about conspiracy; how they articulate, in the open and public forum of history writing, the closed and secret event of conspiracy. As we shall see, conspiracy is betrayed—and thereby revealed to the public—by people trusted with access to the private chambers of the conspirators: bedfellows and slaves.

This principle is demonstrated in three of the most famous conspiracies of ancient Rome: the betrayed Catilinarian, Bacchanalian, and Pisonian conspiracies. Sallust's Bellum Catilinae, Livy's Bacchanalian affair (39.8-19), and Tacitus' Pisonian conspiracy (Annales 15.48-74) are strikingly similar. In each account, the historian struggles to construct a continuous chain of causality of an event that is shrouded in secrecy and silence. Moreover, women play an important role in each conspiracy narrative. By comparing the depiction of women, their various actions and motives, we can see how conspiracy was a corruption of all that Roman aristocratic life stood for.

But these conspiracies were betrayed. What happens when a conspiracy is successful in achieving its aim? The assassinations of Julius Caesar and the emperor Caligula provide instructive contrasts. While Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus tried to construct a coherent narrative about a secret event, Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 19.1-273) was at liberty to describe the assassination of Caligula in its entirety, precisely because the conspiracy was neither detected nor suppressed; its secrets were exposed only once the deed was successfully completed. Our study concludes with an analysis of Appian's narrative of the murder of Julius Caesar (Civil Wars 2.111-117), perhaps the most famous event in Roman history, which haunted the Romans and structured their perception of conspiracy, tyranny, and freedom.

In these five conspiracy narratives, a rhetoric of conspiracy contributes to what I call a strategy of containment. Conspiracy is dangerous and threatening, morally, politically, economically, and socially. It arouses fear, both in those in power, who risk being overthrown, and in those who conspire, who risk being discovered and punished. A historical account of a conspiracy controls these fears by solidifying them in written word and disengaging other possible narrative outcomes. Conspiracy narratives operate as palliatives; well-constructed accounts of the worrisome events assure the reader that the conspiracy was a rare exception and will not happen again, if everyone remains vigilant. In this sense, conspiracy narratives both contain fear and deter future attempts at revolution. Other types of events in Roman historiography are celebratory, lauding identity and power. The foundation stories of Aeneas, Romulus, and Lucius Junius Brutus, for example, extol the establishment of Roman rule. Great battles, sacks of cities, kings routed and captured, internal discord between consuls and tribunes, agrarian legislation, the struggle of the orders—these were the topics that made for good old-fashioned history, according to Tacitus (Ann. 4.32.1). There is no room for internal threats of conspiracy in this list. Closest to civil war, conspiracy reveals Roman society at its worst and Roman politics at its weakest. But unlike civil war, when difference explodes into fraternal bloodshed like a violent volcanic eruption, conspiracy is more like an earthquake, whose unseen forces suddenly and unexpectedly shift the ground beneath one's feet. Hovering between stability and revolution, conspiracy is most important for understanding how the Romans maintained continuous authority in the face of internal threats of violence and disruption.

Conspiracy in the Roman Literary Imagination

By Victoria Emma Pagán

Victoria Emma Pagán is Associate Professor of Classicsal Studies at the University of Florida.

"This often provocative book... is a significant contribution to the field, for there is no comparable study."

—David Potter, University of Michigan, author of Literary Texts and the Roman Historian