Preferred Citation: Feldherr, Andrew. Spectacle and Society in Livy's History. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.

The Alternative of Drama

III. Tragedy and the Tarquins

Rather than portraying the theater as an essentially “democratic” institution, as some scholars have interpreted it,[83] Livy explicitly connects the excesses of dramatic performances with monarchy. The insania that the theater has become would be intolerable even in wealthy and luxurious kingdoms. The association between the drama and kingship makes sense on a number of levels. If dramatic performances can be taken as defining an antithesis to an idealized conception of Roman society, there was no institution more out of place in Rome than kingship. Indeed, the Roman tragic stage was, as we have seen, the representation of a royal palace, and the extravagant stage buildings of the Late Republic themselves became signs of the dangerous and improper pursuit of personal prestige by those who financed them. But for the historian, the regnum as archetype of a political system alien to the res publica could also be linked to a specific period in Roman history. While the first six kings of Rome receive a generally positive treatment as the originators of the public institutions that still defined the Roman state, the reign of the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, becomes in Livy’s text an anomalous interruption in the course of Roman history, a period when all the city’s political traditions are overturned, against which the newly founded Republic can be defined.[84] Thus Tarquin’s regnum occupies a place in Livy’s narrative not unlike that of the theater in the public life of the state, and Livy develops this connection by framing his account of the last king’s reign with episodes explicitly described as dramas. The murder of Servius Tullius through which Tarquin gains the throne is a “tragic crime” (tragicum scelus), one of only two times the word “tragic” is used by Livy;[85] the rape of Lucretia, the event that precipitates the founding of the Republic, results from a pastime devised by the king’s sons, described as a iuvenalis ludus (1.57.11), for which Livy employs both the setting and language of comedy.[86]

But a closer look at Livy’s condemnation of the insania of the theater suggests that the presentation of these events as dramas has a broader function within his text than to signify the corruption of Tarquin’s regime. The regnum Livy mentions in the passage from book 7 was not located on the stage; rather, it described the state in which unrestrained theatrical performances took place. The transgression of the restraints that ideally govern the theater means that the inversions that ought to be restricted to the stage have propagated themselves among the audience. So too the “dramas” in book 1 do not simply reflect the anomalies of Tarquin’s reign; they engender and perpetuate them. And as in book 7 the drama was contrasted with another ritual that healed “sickness” and put Rome’s legitimate political power on display, so here the creation of the Republic results from the production of other forms of visual display, which both reveal the failures of the regnum and reconstitute Roman society. Finally, it must also be remembered that the regna Livy evokes in book 7 are used to characterize not Rome’s ancient past but her present. So, too, we shall see that the particular social ills that the end of the regnum exemplifies relate directly to the contemporary issues of civic loyalty discussed in the preceding chapter, and the display that provides their remedy can again be connected with the healing ritual of sacrifice, the audience for which is now expanded to include Livy’s own readers.

A survey of the events that bring Tarquin to power will make clear both the social tendencies that differentiate this period in history and why drama as a form of spectacle should be particularly associated with them. Tullia, a daughter of Servius Tullius, was originally married to Arruns, a son of the previous king (1.46.4ff.). But when she perceives his ambition for power to be much less than her own, she contrives his death, as well as that of her sister, who was married to her husband’s more aggressive brother, L. Tarquinius. Having married Tarquinius herself, she goads her new husband to regain the throne that rightly belongs to him as the son of Tarquinius Priscus until, “inspired by womanly furies,”[87] he initiates a conspiracy to seize power. He summons the Senate, occupies the throne, and delivers an attack against Servius as a slave who has revealed his origins by constantly favoring the lowest classes (1.47.8ff.). When Tullius himself arrives to challenge him, Tarquin grabs the aged king and hurls him down the steps of the curia. Tullia, who has just appeared in the forum itself to proclaim her husband king and been hustled away by him, finishes off her aged father as he gropes his way home by running him over with her wagon (1.48.1ff.). Thence “contaminated with the blood of her father,” she returns to her penates, whose anger ensures “that a similar ending will follow swiftly upon the evil beginning of the reign.”[88]

Livy’s portrayal of these events focuses especially on the interaction between the family and the state as two social entities. We have seen that for Cicero, the ability to place the state above the family as the object of loyalty and affection marked a crucial stage in the development of each individual’s civic identity. Livy historicizes this process by relating key events in the growth of the Roman state to the increase of patriotic feelings among its individual citizens. Thus his account of the founding of the Republic, for which Tarquin’s reign prepares, makes the transformation in Rome’s constitution inseparable from a revolution in the loyalties of the Romans themselves. Libertas would have been impossible had not “the love of wives and children and the dearness of the land itself,” generated a sense of communal loyalty by binding the animi of what had been a transitory population.[89]

But if affection within the family paves the way for full participation in the state for the other Romans, for the Tarquins, it has an opposite effect. It is the exhortations of his wife Tullia that lead Tarquin to overthrow the legitimate ruler, a sign both of the inversion of normal hierarchies within the family and of how this in turn leads to the privileging of family interest over public duty. Throughout the narrative, the dynastic ambitions of the Tarquins mean that they constantly overvalue the family against the state. Superbus justifies the deposition of Servius Tullius on the grounds that as the son of Tarquinius Priscus, he himself is the legitimate king: “He has occupied the throne of his father, and much better the king’s son be the heir to the kingdom than the king’s slave.”[90] Not only does he define public status on the basis of domestic status, but in so doing, he reverses one of the great models of inclusion formulated under the monarchy, the adoption of Servius Tullius. The new king is as devoted to the interests of his sons as he was alive to his own prerogatives as filius.[91] As a ruse to overcome the town of Gabii, Sextus Tarquinius pretends that his father the king has finally turned against his own family and forced him into exile, a lie that serves to underline the real closeness between father and son, who communicate with one another through secret signals, tacitis ambagibus (1.53.6), impenetrable to any outside observer. Thus the Tarquins, who like the other Romans originally came to the city as immigrants, fail to make the connection to the state that Livy describes as the fundamental prerequisite for the Republic. The contrast emerges most clearly when, after the first consul Brutus has executed his own sons for plotting against the Republic, the former king is described as an exile, wandering again among the cities of Etruria begging his allies “not to allow him to perish before their eyes with his adolescent sons.”[92]

The very same inversion in loyalties that keeps the Tarquins essentially foreign is also what give Livy’s depiction of the end of the regnum its distinctively tragic features. Since the more intimate bonds of family now determine the course of public affairs, Livy’s narrative is continually pulled away from the public spaces of the city into the private, unseen realms of the domus. Livy links the royal palace (regia) itself with the reign’s tragic nature: “for the Roman royal palace too brought forth an example of tragic crime” (tulit enim et Romana regia sceleris tragici exemplum [1.46.3]). The palace provides a powerful symbol of the family ambitions of the Tarquins, and as such it is especially contrasted to the senate house where the public deposition of Servius takes place. But at the same time, the regia also assumes the role of a tragic stage set, through which characters enter and exit. Tullia, contaminated with the blood of her father, returns to her penates (1.48.7); she does not emerge again in the narrative until the regime falls, when she is described “fleeing her home” as those who see her invoke the furies of her parents (1.59.13). Similarly, Tullia herself, as the driving force within the royal household, assumes a prominence unusual for women in historical narrative and becomes the center around which tragic imagery clusters. Phrases like muliebribus instinctus furiis, “inspired by womanly furies,” which make Tarquin seem like a fatally misguided Orestes, also point to the unnatural dominance of his wife within the familia.[93]

But not only do these tragic characteristics represent the nature of the regnum, the regnum itself comes into being as a result of them. The “tragic” scene that Tullia plays for Tarquin within the palace drives him toward his public crime as it converts him too into a tragic character. The bribery and the enticements that secure Tarquin’s position prior to his coup (1.47.7) can be read as the extension of this “tragic” influence outward, again through a series of secret meetings, so that the other “fathers of families” (patres gentium) become the servants of Tullia’s ambition. Thus the actions that Livy described as tragic generate a hidden network of intrigues that successively draw more and more people away from their duty to the state, until the res publica itself is subsumed under their influence.

The private ambitions that prompt Tarquin’s coup are cloaked behind the appearance of public legitimacy he creates. The final deposition of Tullius is deliberately portrayed as a public act. It takes place in the Senate and is preceded by an address in which Tarquin justifies his action on constitutional and political grounds: Tullius assumed the kingship without any of the customary procedures, as “a woman’s gift.”[94] As king, he has proved himself an advocate of the lowest classes against the better. According to Tarquin, it is Tullius’s reign that has been the anomaly, and he, too, depicts the inversion of power within the state as the result of an overturning of the hierarchy within the family. The kingship of Servius, he suggests, constitutes an extended Saturnalia, when slaves are given the power of insulting their masters.[95] His own usurpation will be the restoration of legitimate order and by throwing the king physically down the Senate steps, in inferiorem partem (1.48.3), he seems to signify that Servius has been returned to his proper place. These are the only actions of Tarquin’s that are accessible to public view, and taken on their own terms, they suggest that, if not perfectly justifiable, his attempt at least springs from recognizably political motives.[96]

There is however one publicly visible manifestation of the true nature of the new reign and of Tarquin’s display in the senate house. Tullia’s sudden appearance in the Forum can be read as a representation of the bursting out of private ambitions into the political centers of the state. Not only does Livy depict her decision to show herself as a result of shamelessness,[97] but a similar direct intervention by women in the public life of the state is again portrayed as a violation of public decorum in the speech Cato delivers against the repeal of the lex Oppia (34.1.7ff.). There, too, that women should appear in such a manner in public was taken as evidence of the breakdown of male authority within the home.[98] Appropriately for the role he is playing, Tarquin now gives the appearance of exercising authority over his wife by ordering her to depart. Yet the very language in which he does so betrays her influence. He employs the verb facessere, a rare and archaic word, which occurs most commonly in drama and appears only two other times in Livy, once in the context of the speech Tullia herself had given urging Tarquin to seize the throne.[99]

Tarquin’s appropriation of the public forms of legitimate authority in this scene gives a particular point to Livy’s explicit characterization of the preceding events as tragic. The mode the historian chooses for representing the preliminaries to the coup introduces a discrepancy between the perceptions of his readers and those of the audience for Tarquin’s actions. Tarquin is at pains to conceal the “dramatic” nature of what has happened, and hence when his wife, the inspiring fury, appears in public, he drives her away. For the audiences within the narrative, it is therefore impossible to perceive what is taking place as the intrusion of an anomalous regime, precisely because this “dramatic interlude” has usurped the forms and appearances of real government. It is only when Tarquin’s coup is staged as a drama, as Livy stages it for his readers, that it takes on the socially useful function of a negative exemplum, defining by contrast the proper conception of the res publica. Thus the deployment of allusions to tragedy within Livy’s text, far from being simply a problem of style, resembles the use of drama in Roman ritual as a carefully orchestrated antithesis to the civic framework in which it was embedded. Moreover, by so carefully delineating the overthrow of Servius Tullius as tragic, the historian counters precisely the elision of the boundary between the space of the dramatic performances and Roman public life that Tarquin strives to produce, and that also provided a constant source of anxiety in the case of actual theatrical spectacles. Significantly, the strategy that the historian here uses to isolate Tarquin’s reign within the course of his history has a close parallel in the new king’s own attempt to use the rhythms of religious ritual to depict the reign of his predecessor as a carnivalesque interruption of legitimate authority.

The Alternative of Drama

Preferred Citation: Feldherr, Andrew. Spectacle and Society in Livy's History. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1998 1998.