In AD 65, Nero chose to believe the dream-vision of a man who told that great masses of gold lay under his land, and sent a massive expedition to recover the gold, which — as it was thought — would increase the imperial treasury. The passage is worth quoting at length.
“Nothing else at the time was the subject of the credulous gossip of the people, and of the very different conversations of thinking persons. It happened, too, that the quinquennial games were being celebrated for the second time, and the orators took from this same incident their chief materials for eulogies on the emperor. ‘Not only,’ they said, ‘were there the usual harvests, and the gold of the mine with its alloy, but the earth now teemed with new abundance, and wealth was thrust upon them by the bounty of the gods.’ These and other servile flatteries they invented, with consummate eloquence and equal sycophancy, confidently counting on the facility of his belief.” (344)
Of course, nothing was found, and “the expectation of riches was one of the causes of the poverty of the State” (344). And we should not at all think it appropriate to draw any sorts of parallels to contemporary notions of wealth thrust upon a nation by some mysterious providence, or the credulity of leaders who might believe in such things, or those whose agreeable public words might encourage them. The United States is, after all, a democracy, and we have not a ruler who thinks his own power supreme.
Nero, on the other hand, knew his executive power to be beyond question, and there could be no answer from those who were declared his enemies. He was a tyrant, and “even among his pleasures there was no cessation of his crimes. For [. . .] Torquatus Silanus was forced to die, because over and above his rank as one of the Junian family he claimed to be the great-grandson of Augustus. Accusers [delatores] were ordered to charge him with prodigality in lavishing gifts, and with having no hope but in revolution. They said further that he had nobles about him for his letters, books, and accounts, titles all and rehearsals of supreme power. Then the most intimate of his freedmen were put in chains and torn from him, till, knowing the doom which impended, Torquatus divided the arteries in his arms. A speech from Nero followed, as usual, which stated that though he was guilty and with good reason distrusted his defence, he would have yet lived, had he awaited the clemency of the judge” (322). The sarcasm of Tactitus is at its most bitter here, for Nero made a habit of having people falsely accused and then, if they did not kill themselves, they were put to death and their property confiscated. One incident is related where an entire family — daughter, father, and grandmother — are falsely accused, and together in a warm bath, they open their veins and die. Of course, we are far from such circumstances today, and far from circumstances such as the one in which sentence was passed on two other citizens by Nero, and they were punished, with “their penalty being the only proof they had of being accused” (341).
In recent days, Tacitus has given me gloomy thoughts about the possibilities offered by public rhetoric in times such as those described above. There’s much popular talk about weblogs as the new democratization of discourse; as the place where the words of individuals can drive political change and counter despotism. But can they? Are weblogs really the equivalent of Ciceronian speeches with the ability to subvert Caesar’s power, or are they the new declamation, our own leisure-time controversiae and suasoriae, where even in earnest argument there’s nothing at stake, since neither side will listen to the other, from Atrios to Little Green Footballs? And while one may easily dismiss my sarcasm at slips towards despotism, with the USA-PATRIOT act and the US administration’s stance towards enemy combatants, today’s delatores may be harder to ignore.
An enjoyment of the rhetoric of Cicero could be seen as evidence of the romantic individualist hope that the words of great women and men can make a difference. In our post-Foucault age of Empire, many are not fond of such perspectives. Hardt & Negri talk not of individuals, but of masses, and technologists today speak often of networks. Perhaps there are weblog rhetorics that seek the speed of networked rumor and the angry hubbub of the mob too large to resist or ignore.