Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Flattery Inflation

From Abandoned Footnotes:
Reading Aloys Winterling’s entertaining revisionist biography of Caligula (which combines my interests in crazy dictatorships and the classical Greco-Roman world – two great tastes that go even better together!), I came across the useful concept of “flattery inflation” (cf. p. 188). Though Winterling is talking about the relationships between the emperors and the senatorial aristocracy in the early Roman Empire, the idea seems more broadly useful to anyone interested in understanding the development of cults of personality and other forms of status recognition gone haywire.

First, the context. From Augustus (Caligula’s great grandfather, the first emperor) onward, the emperor was the most powerful person in Rome, partly due to his control of the Praetorian Guard, and partly due to the economic resources the imperial household had come to control. At the same time, the emperor depended (at least early on) on the senatorial aristocracy to rule the empire. In more technical terms, the 600 or so member senate constituted the emperor’s selectorate, the group from which the emperor needed to draw the people who could command the legions, coordinate the taxation of the provinces, and in general govern the empire and keep him in power. The emperor could differentially favour members of the senatorial aristocracy (by promoting them to various high-status positions), but segments of the aristocracy could also conspire against him and potentially overthrow him, selecting a different emperor, especially since principles of hereditary succession were never clearly institutionalized (though emperors early on had wide latitude in selecting their own successors). Nevertheless, though senators as a group might dislike a particular emperor, they did not necessarily agree on any given alternative (much less on any alternative acceptable to the Praetorian Guard, which also had some say in the matter), and at any rate individual senators could always benefit from convincing the emperor that some other senators were conspiring to unseat him (via maiestas [treason] trials, in which the convicted were executed and their property confiscated – something which incidentally provided an incentive for accused senators to commit suicide before their trial, so that their families could keep their property). Senators thus faced some coordination costs in acting against even a hated emperor. These obstacles were not insurmountable (conspiracies did take place, and sometimes succeeded), but they were not insignificant either.

So far, so good: nothing too different here from any number of autocracies in the ancient world (and many modern ones as well).Yet there is one thing that makes this strategic situation interesting: despite the huge disparity in military and resources between the emperor and the members of the aristocracy, emperors and senators did not at first have widely different social statuses, and the senate remained the central locus for the distribution of honours in Roman society. Senators jockeyed over relative status (marked by such things as the seating order in the circus or the theatre, the order of voting in the senate, the lavishness of their hospitality in their private parties, the achievement of political office, the number of their clients, etc.) while recognizing the primacy of the emperor, but they remained notional social equals....MORE
HT: Marginal Revolution