Tacitus, Annals IV.55-56

Tiberius grants Smyrna the right to build a temple dedicated to him
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114 CE to 116 CE
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Having fulfilled a governorship in a consular province, either in Upper or Lower Germania (approximately between 101 and 104 CE), Tacitus went back to Rome and started to write the Histories dealing with the period 69-96 CE. This work was most likely completed around 110 CE (Sage, “Tacitus’,” p. 863; for a presentation of Tacitus’s life see Tacitus, Agricola XXI). Then, after fulfilling a proconsulship of Asia, probably from 112 to 113 CE, he returned to Rome at a date that remains debated and started or continued the composition of his last main work, the Annals (about the fact that the Annals is a “Hadrianic” work, see Syme, Tacitus, p. 465-480, 768-770; for a date of composition around 114-116 CE, see Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 11). The precise dating of the completion of the Annals – even if it is probable that it remained uncompleted (Woodman, Kraus, Tacitus, p. 11) – and that of Tacitus’s death remain unknown.

Whereas in the preface of the Histories, Tacitus forecasted that, after the writing of this work, he would compose an historical work to describe more recent times, he did the reverse in the Annals by narrating events that occurred from the death of Augustus in 14 CE to that of Nero in 68 CE. The work as we know it today is incomplete.
The text presented here is an excerpt from the fourth book of the Annals in which Tacitus records events that occurred between 23 and 28 CE. This book has a particular role as it marks the evolution from one group of books (I-III) in which Tacitus presents Tiberius’s reign and actions through a relatively positive or at least neutral point of view to another group (IV-VI) in which Tacitus judges Tiberius’s policy much more severely (Martin and Woodman, Tacitus, p. 14). The text presented here deals with the fact that, in 26 CE, eleven cities from the province of Asia (Hypaepa, Tralles, Laodicea, Magnesia, Ilium, Halicarnassus, Pergamum, Ephesus, Miletus, Sardis, Smyrna) expressed their desire to erect a temple in honour of Tiberius, his mother and the Senate and thus to become what would be called in a near future, a “neocorate city”. Neokoros is a Greek title that originally referred to the name of an official taking care of a sacred building, but the meaning evolved during the first century CE to describe communities in the eastern Mediterranean that maintained a provincial temple to the Roman emperor (on the evolution of the meaning of neokoros, see Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 1, 5-6, 373). This request has to be understood in the context of permanent diplomatic relationships and negotiations between the cities of the province of Asia and imperial power during the reign of Tiberius. For example, in Annals III.60-63, Tacitus narrates that negotiations took place in 22 CE between the imperial power and Greek cities because the former considered that the latter were abusing their rights of asylum. In fact, if at the end of the Republican period, the rivalries between the most powerful Roman commanders had led them to grant generously the right of asylum to numerous sanctuaries, Augustus and Tiberius tried to do the reverse by limiting the granting of this right and also by increasing the control to prevent any abusive pretension to asylum. The multiplication of these places of asylum was perceived by Rome as a threat for the political and social order. Tiberius asked the Greek cities who had been granted this advantageous status to send legates to Rome with documents proving that they were in their right (for the review of asylum under Tiberius, see Heller, “Les bêtises,” p. 165-169). Among the representatives who went to Rome, several came from cities of Asia Minor also quoted in the text presented here (Magnesia, Pergamum, Ephesus, Miletus, Sardis, Smyrna). In addition, in Annals IV.15, Tacitus narrates that, in 23 CE, the Roman Senate condemned a proconsul and a procurator whom the koinon of Asia had previously accused of causing exactions during their term of office in the province. This favourable decision of the Senate probably motivated the koinon of Asia to ask for permission to build a temple to Tiberius, his mother Livia and the Senate in the province (about the role of the koinon of Asia at this step of the procedure, see Heller, “Les bêtises,” p. 213). The Senate and the emperor answered positively, but the question of where this temple should be built remained open and stirred up the competition between the cities of the province of Asia. The delay of three years between the two events and the fact that eleven cities – perhaps preselected by the koinon of Asia (see Heller, “Les bêtises,” p. 213-214) – sent representatives to Rome to plead the cause of their own city has to be explained by the fact that the koinon of Asia did not succeed in reaching an agreement and chose to let the Roman Senate take the final decision concerning the promoted city (Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 39).

The first important point to mention is that, just before this narrative, Tacitus recalls that in 25 CE, a deputation from Baetica had travelled to Rome in order to ask permission to build a shrine to Tiberius and Livia, following thus the Asian precedent. Tiberius refused Baetica’s request, stating that he permitted the temple in Asia only because of Augustus’s decision with Pergamum (he had previously permitted the city of Pergamum to erect one to himself and the city of Rome). For him, one instance of this was acceptable, but to permit a second shrine would reduce the honour to vulgarity (Tacitus, Annals IV.37-38). The fact that Tiberius rejected, on account of his being alive, that he could receive any divine honours is confirmed by Suetonius’s narrative when the latter writes that Tiberius forbade the voting of temple, flamens and priests in his honour but also the setting up of statues without his permission. In addition, even when he authorised such things, he ordered that his statues or busts should not be placed among the representations of the gods (simulacra deorum) but rather placed as “ornaments of the temples” (ornamenta aedium) as reported by Suetonius, Tiberius 26. Tiberius’s refusal to receive god-like honours can also be seen in the way the emperor is presented through civic titles of emperors and not through supra-human references in the inscription SEG 11.923 dealing with the celebrations related to the imperial cult under Tiberius organised by city of Gytheion. Thus, the request of these eleven communities of Asia should be understood in this context of Tiberius’s caution regarding the honours and cults that could be bestowed upon him during his lifetime; a caution that made his decision all the more meritorious for the granted city.

Another interesting aspect of this text is the nature of the arguments used by these civic communities to prove that they were the best candidate for receiving the right to build the temple. The first argument is that of the antiquity of the origins of their civic community (see vetustas in IV.55.1). This argument was used by most of these civic communities from Asia, even if for some of them, such as Ilium, the former Troy, this was the sole argument the civic community could point to (IV.55.2). The argument of antiquity was also often connected with a will to show that they were also prestigious for being of divine descent. This is the case of the representatives of Smyrna who highlighted the fact that the city was founded by Tantalus, Theseus, or one of the Amazons (IV.56.1).

The second argument that the representatives of these civic communities could use – an argument that is closely connected to the first one – was that Rome and their city had a common destiny because they shared the same origins. This argument is used by the representatives of Ilium, who stressed the fact that Troy was the mother of Rome (IV.55.2), but also by those of Sardis who recalled the legend according to which Lydians and Italians were both descendants of the king Atys. This connection was then proven by the quotation of a decree from Etruria that recalled that the two peoples were bound by “brotherhood” (IV.55.3; about the long tradition, first attested in Herodotus’s Histories, of the kinship ties between the Lydians and the Etruscans see Briquel, L’origine lydienne, especially p. 104-107 about the decree mentioned by Tacitus). It should be recalled that such claims of kinship with the Romans were a common motif in the diplomatic relationships and negotiations between Greek cities and the Roman power. We can quote the examples of the Cypriots who, in 14 CE, when they took an oath to Tiberius, claimed that Augustus – like them – descended from the goddess Aphrodite (see A Cypriot Oath of Allegiance to Tiberius); or even of Aphrodisias with the members of the Julian family (see Letter of Octavian to Ephesus concerning Aphrodisias).

The third kind of argument is the recalling of the past wars in which these communities from Asia fought aside Rome, or for which they furnished material support (see IV.55.1; see also the description made of the way Smyrna furnished clothes to the Roman legions during the war against Mithridates in 87-85 CE, at V.56.2). Some representatives also insisted on the treatises that united the two powers (this is the case of Sardis during the third Macedonian War that opposed Rome to Perseus, see IV.55.4; on other examples of symmachia or alliance see Honours for Claudius in the Stadiasmus Patarensis; The Flavian Emperors and the Walls of Iberia (Caucasus); Letter of Octavian to Ephesus concerning Aphrodisias).

The fourth kind of argument underscored by some representatives is that their cities were located in a particularly suitable environment. This is the case, for instance, of the representatives of Halicarnassus or of Pergamum who highlighted the fact that they were spared by natural catastrophes, especially earthquakes (IV.55.2). This argument may be put in relation to the fact that, in 17 CE, one of their rivals, the city of Sardis, had been largely damaged by an important earthquake. Tacitus narrates that Tiberius had been particularly generous towards the inhabitants of Sardis as he granted them ten millions of sesterces, but also a five-year remission of dues (Annals II.47). We can imagine that, by petitioning to the same emperor ten years later, the inhabitants of Sardis must have wanted to show that the community had recovered from the disaster. They even went further by highlighting the fact that their city enjoyed a particularly advantageous environment (IV.55.4). On the other hand, the rivals of Sardis (like Halicarnassus) tried to take advantage of the misfortune that affected many cities of Asia and in particular Sardis ten years before, by recalling that they had not been personally concerned by such natural catastrophes (IV.55.2).

While Tacitus in this text mentions the genealogic, diplomatic and/or geographic arguments presented by the representatives of these cities from Asia to prove that they should be chosen by Tiberius to be allowed to receive the temple to the Roman emperor, he also explains which kind of criteria were used by the imperial power to select or reject the applicant communities. Some of them were rejected because they were not enough powerful (IV.55.2), some others, such as Ilium, could only boast about their prestigious past (IV.55.2). Some communities were not selected because they already had prestigious temples, as in the case of Pergamum which already had been granted the construction of the temple of Augustus and Roma in 29 BCE (see Annals IV.37.3 and IV.55.2; Pergamum, Trajan, and Games in honour of Rome). That was also apparently the case of the cities of Ephesus and of Miletus who had also important temples (see IV.55.2; these monuments are enumerated more precisely in Annals III.61.1 and 63.3).

Smyrna was thus selected by the senators because it combined two essential qualities: ancient prestigious origins and faithful alliance towards Rome during foreign wars, such as that of Antiochus III in 191-188 BCE, or during the Social War (IV.56.1). Nevertheless, the senators seem to have responded to another element, namely the fact that the city of Smyrna had been the first city in the East to erect a temple to the City of Rome in 195 BCE (“under the consulate of Marcus Porcius,” IV.56.1). The reasons that motivated this building remain debated. Some scholars interpreted this as the result of diplomatic aims or strategies; the inhabitants of Smyrna would have encouraged Rome to assist them against the Seleucid king Antiochus III who had already besieged their city (for Smyrna, see Mellor, ΘEA PΩMH, p. 15; Fayer, Il culto della dea, p. 31-32; about the development of the worship of Roma in Asia Minor during the first half of the second century BCE, see Livy, History of Rome XLIII.6). But it remains possible that the temple was erected to thank the Romans for the benefits they granted to the city (see Derow, “From the Illyrian Wars,” p. 64; Knoepfler, “Les Rômaia,” p. 1266). Whatever the reasons for the building of this temple to Rome, it is noteworthy that Smyrna did not build this temple to manifest its admiration for Rome – an idea which may be implied in Tacitus’s text –, but more as a reward for Rome’s assistance or benefaction (see Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 39). Furthermore, two centuries after the construction of this temple to Roma, the Romans had kept the memory of the fact that the earliest cult paid to Roma in the East was in Smyrna and they used it as an argument to justify why this city should be preferred. Finally, the fact that Smyrna did not have a temple that suited its status among the most prosperous, prestigious and powerful cities of the province of Asia must have been a decisive factor that motivated the choice (see Heller, “Les bêtises,” p. 214).

In conclusion, this text of Tacitus in which he describes the competition between these eleven civic communities of the province of Asia to obtain the right to establish a temple to the living emperor Tiberius shows how the granting of this right could cause an intense competition between these communities. Because of Tiberius’s reluctance to receive divine honours, this temple to the emperor, his mother and the Senate was the only one which was authorized to be built in a province during Tiberius’s lifetime; a situation that made the grant all the more prestigious. By becoming for the first time a neokoros city, that is a city that possessed a provincial temple of the cult of the Roman emperor (note however that Smyrna started to use the title of neokoros around the end of the first century CE, perhaps under the reign of Domitian, see Burrell, Neokoroi, p. 41), Smyrna asserted its preeminent status which at that time, in the province of Asia, was only shared by Pergamum. If the antiquity, prestige, prosperity of the city, but also its past commitments for Rome, had been essential conditions for the grant of this privilege to Smyrna, the choice of the Senate and of the emperor must have been also largely motivated by the “cultic availability” of the city. As rightly justified by Anna Heller, by building an imperial temple in an area that did not have a major temple, the Roman power made sure that the new imperial cult would have a broader audience and success; moreover, it also helped to maintain the necessary balance between the most important Greek cities of the province of Asia (Heller, “Les bêtises,” p. 214-215).

Bibliographical references: 

Tacitus, I-II

Syme, RonaldbookTacitus, I-IIOxfordClarendon Press1958

Tacitus, Agricola

Woodman, Anthony J., Kraus, Christina S.bookTacitus, AgricolaCambridgeCambridge University Press2014

Tacitus, Annals, Book IV

Martin, Ronald H., Woodman Anthony J.bookTacitus, Annals, Book IVCambridgeCambridge University Press1989
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