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The Clementia of Burning Letters

Nathaniel Katz

The University of Texas at Austin

The Clementia of Burning Letters

            When Caesar captured several boxes of Pompeian correspondence and burned them unread, he began a curious Roman tradition. According to Cassius Dio, Augustus, Caligula, Claudia, Narcissus, Lucius Maxima, and Marcus Aurelius also all mercifully burned or pretended to burn documents, in most cases correspondence evidencing participation in a rebellion or papers showing treasonous activity. Historians of particular figures—notably, Weinstock (1971) on Caesar, Barrett (1990) and Wardle (1994) on Caligula, and Birley (2012) on Marcus Aurelius—have analyzed specific instances but not treated the practice’s full scope, while Howley (forthcoming) brings these incidents together but does so in the context of book burnings rather than clementia. Drawing on the work of Adam (1970), Dowling (2006), and Braund (2009), I analyze the phenomenon in light of the history of clementia.

            The granting of clemency implies superiority, for you can only spare someone if you have more power than he or she does. Because of that implicit hierarchy, clemency played little role in Roman politics until Caesar, whose clemency won him renown but also Cicero and Cato’s distrust. Seneca, Pliny the Elder, and Dio applauded Caesar’s destruction of the letters with superlatives because, since he had not read them (DC 41.63.5-6; Plin N.H. 7.93-4; Sen. Ira 2.23.4), he did not know whom he had spared, thus leaving the status of those he spared unimpaired. Dio not only described the incident in its chronological place but brought it up in Caesar and Antony’s speeches (DC 43.17.3-4, 44.47.1-5), where the incident proved the dictator’s virtue and concomitant right to rule. Each time, Dio emphasized how Caesar neither surreptitiously read nor copied the letters.

            Those details bloom as the reader continues through the history, for later rulers copied Caesar’s acts without his fidelity. Augustus kept some of his enemies’ letters (DC 52.42.8), while Caligula burned all of the documents but not before making copies (DC 59.4.3, 59.6.3-4, 59.10.7-9, 59.16.2-3). The senate responded by sacrificing to the brutal emperor’s clementia. When Claudius inherited Caligula’s documents, he confronted everyone implicated before burning them, turning an act of clandestine clemency into an intimidation technique (DC 60.4.5). Indeed, the only two people between Caesar and the second century to destroy documents faithfully were not emperors but a freedman, Narcissus, (DC 61.34.5) and Lucius Maxima (DC 67.11.1-2), Domitian’s general against the rebel Antonius. When he found Antonius’ letters, he did away with them in the emperor’s name. This is in some ways a parallel for the senate’s response to Caligula. Lucius Maxima and the senate tried to lure the emperor toward mercy by praising that quality of his. Alas, neither emperor was swayed; Domitian executed Antonius’ partisans. It was not until Marcus Aurelius that an emperor truly replicated Caesar’s feat (DC 72.29.1-2). Unlike Caesar, he was not assassinated in the wake of his civil war with Avidius Cassius. Now a virtuous man ruled from a position of sufficient strength to exercise that virtue without endangering his life. Dio also reported a variant that the governor Verus rather than Marcus found the usurper’s letters and destroyed them as Lucius Maxima had destroyed Antonius’. Even here, though, Marcus acted properly, for unlike Domitian he embraced the clement path that his subordinate offered him.

            Dio meant the reader to compare and contrast these incidents. Augustus and Caligula deceived in the way that Caesar explicitly did not, while Marcus flipped Domitian’s response. The descriptions of these acts also often employed the same ὅσα construction. Though Dio focused on destroying document more than our other sources, the metric was not just his. Suetonius, e.g., shared Dio’s sentiments about Caligula’s murderous trick (Calig. 15.4, 30.2). Emperors thus burned documents to show their great mercy, while historians used such incidents to either applaud that quality in their subjects or expose the hypocrisy of the claim. 

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Letters in the Ancient World

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