Peter Jones

Nero’s scandalous spads

Close to power but despised by those with more formal office. Sound familiar?

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Theresa May has brought her own advisers with her into No. 10, and as usual the knives are out for them: they are parasites, and what are the civil service and the cabinet for anyway? Romans had the same trouble with freedmen.

A ‘freedman’ (libertus or libertinus) was someone who had been a slave but been freed by his master. The emperor had hundreds of such slaves at his service, many with valuable skills, and any who were freed could be invited to retain their position in the imperial entourage, a duty they had to fulfil if their master asked them.

While such a man was a slave, whatever his position, he was a non-person. But once freed, he became a citizen (though not a full one) and that was a very different kettle of fish. As a citizen, and one so close to the levers of power, he posed a threat to everyone else fighting for the emperor’s ear. Many of these would have been of distinguished ancient families and in positions of considerable authority, and the idea that they could be usurped in the emperor’s favours by an ex-slave was not one they took kindly to.

The insecure emperor Claudius (d. AD 54) was notorious for his reliance on freedmen, and the Roman great and good reacted in kind. The younger Pliny called his freedman Pallas ‘dirt’ and ‘filth’ and was outraged that Claudius gave him the insignia of a praetor (the job below consul), devaluing the honours normally given to ‘men of good family’. It got worse: because freedmen were so powerful, senators had to suck up to them to stand any chance of winning the distinctions and the status they so desperately wanted. Behind their backs, the rich and powerful ground their teeth that ‘slaves’ were ruling them: the natural order of things was being undermined. When Nero sent his freedman Polyclitus to settle a dispute in Britain, the locals laughed (said the historian Tacitus) that a Roman army and general had to bow to a slave.

And unelected advisers? Plus ça change…