Text #5720

Tacitus. The Complete Works
[Tac. Ann. 12.52. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Random House. 1942 p. 276]

In the consulship of Faustus Sulla and Salvius Otho, Furius Scribonianus was banished on the ground that he was consulting the astrologers about the emperor’s death. His mother, Junia, was included in the accusation, as one who still resented the misfortune of exile which she had suffered in the past. His father, Camillus, had raised an armed insurrection in Dalmatia, and the emperor in again sparing a hostile family sought the credit of clemency. But the exile did not live long after this; whether he was cut off by a natural death, or by poison, was matter of conflicting rumours, according to people’s belief.

A decree of the Senate was then passed for the expulsion of the astrologers from Italy, stringent but ineffectual.

Text #9744

Ripat. "Expelling Misconceptions: Astrologers at Rome"


…expulsions would come at the end of a long series of events causing popular dissatisfaction with the emperor or popular uncertainty over continued political stability. At this point, dire predictions of astrologers could seem to be the tipping point between order and chaos in the city, chaos that the emperor, bereft of the ability to command popular respect, would be unable to quell except with force. 1 Consider the expulsion of 52., for example, a situation supposedly precipitated by Furius Scribonianus’ consultation of astrologers about Claudius’ demise. But a closer look at Tacitus’ description of the events makes it clear that there was more to it (Ann. 12.52) […]

While Scribonianus’ exile was clearly the result of his consultation of astrologers, it is not at all clear that this same consultation caused their mass expulsion. Claudius’ concern does not appear to have been rooted in an astrologically identified death date, or even in Scribonianus’ potential ability to unseat him; the problem seems to have been the rumors that circulated over the cause of Scribonianus’ death, which subverted Claudius’ magnanimous gestures designed to prove his clemency, and indeed, complete lack of concern on these same points. Astrologers may well have been behind the rumors that Scribonianus had died by mischief—death by poison is attested in astrological treatises and horoscopes2 and it is therefore presumably the broadcast of the rumors of Scribonianus’ death rather than Scribonianus’ earlier consultation of astrologers that got them expelled. But perhaps this expulsion would not have taken place if the previous year had not featured rioting in the forum over a grain shortage3 a shortage that had been construed as a prodigium, and a riot from which Claudius barely escaped with his life—and a host of other prodigies that were interpreted, again, possibly by astrologers, as evidence of further impending calamity.4 By 52, in short, it may have been that Claudius was sufficiently concerned about his ability o command respect in the city and so to ensure public order that the removal of rumormongering astrologers was seen as necessary.

  1. Cf. Nippel (1995, 49), who notes that disturbances, even over grain shortages, generally had more than one cause. O’Neill (2003, 142) notes that discussion in informal gatherings had the potential “to lead to direct action” against recognized authorities. [OF]

  2. Neugebauer and Van Hoesen 1959, 84 (L65, V = Vett. Val. 2.41). Cf. O’Neill (2003, 145–46) on damaging rumors of Agricola’s death by poison under Domitian. [OF]

  3. The grain supply was critical in the loss or maintenance of civic order, and the princeps was considered personally responsible for it; see Yavetz 1969, 137–38; Garnsey 1988, 29–31; Kneppe 1988. [OF]

  4. Griffin 1991, 35; Nippel 1995, 85–87; and Erdkamp 2002.166. Tac. Ann. 12.43; Suet.Claud. 18–19. Dio Cass. 60.11 does not mention the riots, only Claudius’ zeal to ensure grain supply; cf. Gai. Inst. 1.32c. Note that Yavetz (1969, 134) connects the expulsion with the prodigia of 51 and not with Scribonianus. For the role of rumor in the shaping of collective behavior, see Vanderbroeck 1987, 12. [OF]

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