An Emperor’s Tears: The Significance of the Mourning of the Julio-Claudian Emperors

Abstract

At the death of Germanicus in 19 CE, the behaviour of the emperor Tiberius came under scrutiny. How would he react to his nephew’s death? According to Tacitus, the failure of Tiberius to make a public appearance was seen as telling, surely it indicated that Tiberius did not wish his lack of remorse and grief to be witnessed (Ann. 3.2-3). Tiberius’ behaviour as a mourner needed to match his behaviour as emperor – secretive, untrusting, inappropriate and quintessentially bad. This paper explores how the Roman emperors from Augustus to Nero were presented as mourning for those that they had lost, highlighting the importance of mourning in the evaluation of character. How an emperor acted as a mourner, whether, for example, he wept openly or shunned the public, could be a considered act of self-presentation, which was open both to contemporary popular scrutiny and posthumous evaluation. The emotion of grief, and the genuineness of its expression, especially through the shedding of tears, became part of a public performance as emperors negotiated the machinations of dynastic succession. How an emperor wept, who for and for how long, could be both a significant measure of his character and of the perceived character, and or importance, of the deceased. An emperor’s tears could come at a reputational price both for himself, and for others.

Author Biography

Valerie Margaret Hope, Open University
Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies

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Published
2019-07-12