Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History II.103

The adoption of Tiberius by Augustus, a guarantee of stability for the Roman Empire.
Name of the author: 
Velleius Paterculus
30 CE
1st CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
The Roman History

The year 30 CE is largely accepted as marking the end of the composition of Velleius Paterculus’s two books of Roman history (on the debates concerning the time of composition of this work and whether it was a preparatory work for a more developed historical narrative, see Hellegouarc’h, Velleius Paterculus, p. xxv-xxx). Some passages of the work show that Velleius dedicated this work to Marcus Vinicius for his appointment as consul for the year 30 CE. Contrary to what the title Roman history indicates – it was not the original title of Velleius, but that given by a humanist scholar –, this work is not focused on Rome’s history only. Actually, the first book – which is fragmentary and much shorter than the second book –, may have been wholly structured by the theme of the succession of empires, to implicitly show that Rome was the last world empire of this succession (Kramer, “Book One of Velleius’s History,” p. 146-148; Bispham, “Time for Italy,” p. 29). The second book deals logically with Rome’s history only. It starts with the victory of Rome against Carthage in 146 BCE and ends with an enthusiastic presentation of Tiberius’s reign. In this second book, Velleius Paterculus wanted to draw attention to the first two emperors. On the 131 chapters of this book, the first 40 narrate important events of Rome’s history before the civil wars, whereas chapters 40-48 deal with the civil wars and the dictatorship of Caesar. Then, Velleius deals at length with Augustus (59-93) and with Tiberius (94-131). It is important to recall that Velleius Paterculus had a special relationship with Tiberius: first, his grand-father was a friend of Tiberius Nero, the father of the future emperor Tiberius; second, Velleius served as praefectus equitum and legate, under Tiberius’s command, during the various campaigns in Germania, Pannonia and Dalmatia between 4 and 12 CE.

The text presented here is an excerpt from chapter 103, in which Velleius deals with the adoption (or rather the adrogatio, on these terms see later) of Tiberius by Augustus, the 26th June of the year 4 CE. First, it is important to remind that, since the testamentary adoption of Octavian by Caesar (on the problematic case of Octavian’s adoption, see Lindsay, Adoption, p. 182-189), the transmission of the political and then imperial power was bound up with filiation (see Corbier, “Male Power,” p. 190). As a result, adoptio/adrogatio was used in the Julio-Claudian family as one of the legal means – together with close kin marriages or divorces – which enabled to “promote preferred heirs within the lineage” (Lindsay, Adoption, p. 171; about endogamous tendencies of the Julio-Claudian family, see Corbier, “Male Power”; Thomas, “Mariages endogamiques,” p. 379-382). The second important point is that, under the principate, Augustus’s family suffered from a lack of men and an excess of women (see Corbier, “Male Power,” p. 179-182). Actually, some unexpected deaths made the situation more uncertain. In 17 BCE, Augustus adopted his grandsons Caius and Lucius (the children of Agrippa and Augustus’s daughter, Julia), who were born in 20 and 17 BCE. A few years later, Agrippa and Julia had a third son, Agrippa Postumus, however his father died before his birth the 26th June 12 BCE. In 11 BCE Tiberius Claudius Nero – who, since 39 BCE, was the stepson of Octavian/Augustus – married Julia. The 20th August 2 CE, Lucius Caesar died at Massilia, and the 21th February 4 CE, Caius Caesar also died when he was 23 years old. Augustus, who was himself 67 years old, had to react to this situation. He decided to adopt Agrippa Postumus and Tiberius the 26th June of the year 4 CE, and he asked Tiberius to also adopt Germanicus who was the grand-son of Augustus’s sister Octavia and also the son of Tiberius’s brother Drusus the Elder. We will study this text to see how Velleius Patercultus presents this event.

Augustus’s adrogatio of his step-son Tiberius to make him his first successor at the head of the empire, is presented by Velleius as being the most obvious and natural choice, an opinion which fits in with Velleius’s laudatory portrayal of Tiberius. However, this has to be put in perspective with the other narratives of the event. First, Velleius Paterculus insists on the fact that Augustus did not choose Tiberius by default: “Caesar Augustus did not long hesitate, for he had no need to search for one to choose as his successor but merely to choose the one who towered above the others. Accordingly, what he had wished to do after the death of Lucius but while Gaius was still living, and had been prevented from doing by the strong opposition of Nero himself...” (§ 2-3). Velleius wants thus to prove that it is not the unexpected death of Caius Caesar, which occurred the 21th February 4 CE, which obliged Augustus to consider Tiberius as a possible successor. Second, the adoption of 4 CE was in reality a double adrogatio which also concerned Augustus’s last natural grand-son, Agrippa Postumus, who was then around 15 years also (on the political motives behind Agrippa Postumus’s adrogatio see Swan, The Augustan Succession, p. 141 and the bibliography). Velleius refers briefly to this event slightly later (104.1; 112.7), but it is clear that what matters most for him was the adrogatio of Tiberius. It is also important to note that Velleius totally omits the fact that, before the adrogatio, Augustus ordered Tiberius to adopt his nephew Germanicus (an episode mentioned in Suetonius, Life of Tiberius XV.2; Suetonius, Life of Caligula I.1 and IV.1; Tacitus, Annales I.3.5 and IV.57.4; Cassius Dio Histories LV.13.2), whereas Tiberius already had a son of his own blood, Drusus the Younger (Lindsay, Adoption, p. 198-199). By omitting Germanicus and by alluding later to the simultaneous adrogatio of Agrippa, Velleius Paterculus may have wanted to highlight the character of Tiberius to present him as the unique uncontested successor of Augustus. He may have deliberately chosen not to take into account all the strategies elaborated by the ruling emperor to ensure the stability of what will be called, at the end of his reign, the domus Augustadomus Augusta that Philippe Moreau has defined as an “Ego-centred kindred,” that is as a “kin class” rather than a “kin group,” which was composed of “wide range of bilateral blood kins and of a small number of close in law and step relatives” (Moreau, “La domus Augusta,” p. 1-23; 333). Considering Augustus’s choice of 4 CE, namely this double adrogatio and the association of Germanicus with Tiberius, with the consequence that they became his agnatic descendants of the first and second degree, it is obvious that it took part in a larger strategy which consisted in “draw[ing] the boundaries of the domus [Augusta] so as to exclude unworthy members and create by adoption internal hierarchies to define an order of succession within the domus” (see Corbier, “Male Power,” p. 190; on Augustus’s global aim to plan two possible lineages with his adopted grand-sons: Germanicus – destined to rule –, and Drusus the Younger – playing the role of back up, see Corbier, “La maison des Césars,” p. 263). Velleius Paterculus may have deliberately chosen not to deal with these questions of familial strategy and of order of succession. Tiberius thus appears in his narrative as the natural and indisputable successor of Augustus.

Velleius Paterculus mentions very briefly Tiberius’s adoption: “... and in the consulship of Aelius Catus and Gaius Sentius, on the twenty-seventh of June, he adopted him (adoptaret), seven hundred and fifty-four years after the founding of the city, and twenty-seven years ago” (§ 3). Because of a probable corruption of the manuscript tradition, the dating of the event has to be corrected to June 26 of the year 4 CE (Woodman, Velleius Paterculus, p. 132-133). To be more precise, the adoption of Tiberius (but also that of Agrippa) was an adrogatio, as it was a person sui iuris, namely legally independent, who voluntarily passed under the patria potestas of another citizen, contrary to the adoptio which was the legal transfer of a person submitted to the potestas of an ascendant, to that of another citizen (about Roman adoptions, see Moreau, “Les adoptions romaines”). One concrete consequence of Tiberius’s adrogatio was that all his property, his natural son Drusus and all what he possessed were transferred under the potestas of Augustus. He also lost his legal independence, and as a consequence could not accept any inheritance or legs, nor emancipate any slave, and he was obliged to adopt Germanicus before being himself adopted by Augustus – adoption procedures had to be accomplished by a person who was sui iuris – (Moreau, “Les adoptions romaines,” p. 18; Swan, The Augustan Succession, p. 142; Lindsay, Adoption, p. 199). The main difference between adoptio and adrogatio was that, for an adrogatio, all the descendants of the person who was adrogated were also systematically integrated in his new family – in the case of an adoptio, the original father could choose the destiny of his grand-son(s) (Moreau, “Les adoptions romaines,” p. 18). Thus, by becoming Augustus’s son or grand-sons, Tiberius, Agrippa, Germanicus and Drusus the Younger (the natural son of Tiberius) took the name of Caesar. However, because of his seniority and his experience, Tiberius received the first position in this newly rearranged order of succession. 

Velleius highlights the very enthusiastic reactions provoked by Tiberius’s adrogatio, and he associates this popular jubilation with ideals inherent to imperial ideology. Thus, Velleius writes: “The rejoicing of that day, the concourse of the citizens, their vows as they stretched their hands almost to the very heavens, and the hopes which they entertained for the perpetual security and the eternal existence of the Roman empire...” (Laetitiam illius diei concursumque civitatis et vota paene inserentium caelo manus spemque conceptam perpetuae securitatis aeternitatisque Romani imperii... § 4). Velleius Paterculus quotes in this sentence ideals which appeared at the end of the Republican period, and which became central in the imperial ideology from Augustus’s principate onwards: the perpetua securitas, “the perpetual security,” and the aeternitas, “the eternity,” of the Roman Empire (see Woodman, Velleius Paterculus, p. 133-134).
Concerning the first notion, the securitas, Velleius Paterculus may be the first Roman author who used it in connection with the Roman State (Woodman, Velleius Paterculus, p. 134). As Carlos Noreña rightly recalls, securitas was an ideal closely associated with the idea of pax, which could refer both to “freedom from undesirable conditions (...) or from physical danger,” and also to “internal and domestic safety and stability” (Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 130). In Velleius’s sentence, it seems that securitas refers to the second meaning as the author implies that the adrogatio of Tiberius is perceived by the Roman people as the proof that the ruling emperor worked for the political stability – and logically for the prosperity – of the Empire. Actually, with this decision, Augustus was preventing civil conflicts caused by illegitimate aspirants to power. A quite similar use of the ideal of securitas, as referring to an ideal that every emperor should seek so as to prevent civil conflict, is present, for instance, in Suetonius’s Life of Titus, when Titus’s murder of Aulus Caecina is presented by the author as a positive act because, by preventing civil strife, it worked for the securitas of the State (Suetonius, Life of Titus VI.6; Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 130-131, n. 97). In a quite similar way, in his Panegyric of Trajan, Pliny also concluded that Nerva’s adoption of Trajan enabled the Romans to experience securitas (see Pliny, Panegyric of Trajan VIII.1; see Woodman, Velleius Paterculus, p. 134). The ideal of securitas, sometimes referring to the securitas of the Roman Empire (legend securitas publica), or to that of the Emperors (legend securitas Augusti), has been represented on many coins of the imperial period through a female often holding a sceptre (see Noreña, Imperial Ideals, p. 131-132).
For what concerns the second ideal, that of the aeternitas, the “eternal existence,” of the Roman empire, Cicero may have been the first to formulate it by connecting it to the res publica or to the Roman people. For instance, in Philippica II.51, he dealt with the eternal existence (sempiternum) of the name of the Roman people (populi Romani nomen); and in For Marcellus XXII, he speaks about the res publica which “must be immortal” (res publica immortalis esse debeat) (on these references, see Woodman, Velleius Paterculus, p. 133). Then, from Augustus’s principate onwards, slogans such as the aeternitas of Rome or the aeternitas of the Empire became widespread (see the first reference to the aeternitas of the city of Rome in Tibullus, Elegies II.5.23; for the aeternitas of the Roman empire, see the well-known reference to the imperium sine fine in Virgil, Aeneid I.279).
The most interesting point of this passage in which Velleius, through the voice of an enthusiastic crowd, presents the adrogatio of Tiberius by Augustus as some kind of indispensable condition for the political stability, the prosperity and the longevity of the Roman empire, is that the securitas and the aeternitas of the Roman empire are not proclaimed, nor considered as acquired. On the contrary, the crowd is said to hope for it (spemque conceptam, § 4).

To conclude, Velleius Parterculus’s narrative of the adoptions led by Augustus in 4 CE is voluntarily focused on the character of Tiberius who thus becomes the main character of this event. By omitting the adoption of Germanicus, and by postponing the narrative of Agrippa’s simultaneous adrogatio to the next page, it is obvious that Velleius deliberately chose not to deal with questions of familial strategy and with Augustus’s more global plan of organizing a real order of succession in which Tiberius receives the first place. Velleius’s aim was to present Tiberius as the unique, natural and indisputable successor of Augustus. To give more credit to this argument, he insisted on the fact that this adrogatio represented the best chance to secure two central values of the Augustan period, namely the security and stability of the Roman empire, as well as to ensure its longevity.

Bibliographical references: 

“La maison des Césars”

Corbier, Mireillearticle-in-a-bookÉpouser au plus proche Pierre Bonte243-291“La maison des Césars”ParisÉditions de l’École des Hautes Études en sciences sociales1994
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