Historical Conspiracies

Trivial fact: Conspiracies have happened in the past. Not so trivial fact: No one really (and by really I mean academically) takes an interest in them as anything other than Historical Events (oh, I’m bound to be proved wrong here; extreme hubris mode on).

Luckily Victoria Emma Pagán has written a book on the subject of Roman Conspiracy Narratives, focussing on three failed conspiracies (the Catilinarian conspiracy: an attempt to win control of Rome through illegimate means, the Bacchanalian cult (by all likelihood not a real conspiracy but one constructed by Livy well after the fact), the Pisonian conspiracy: Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s attempt to become Emperor after killing Nero) and two successful conspiracies, the assassinations of Julius Caesar and Caligula (aka ‘Little Boots’).

Where knowledge of the facts becomes more shadowy, the gap must be filled both by narrative skill (particularly the good handling of suspense) and ideological and generic influences. Addressing the ways that a historian frames conspiracy, especially the strategies he uses to build the reader’s confidence in his account, raises the larger question of what conspiracy means to a Roman. The historian relies upon shared political and cultural values to fill out the narrative in places where the facts are sketchier. For this reason, it was hard not to misremember Pagán’s title as “Conspiracy Theories in Ancient Rome,” an error that the author herself encourages by including material on Watergate and the Kennedy assassination. These two contemporary examples, both rife with gaps in information and competing versions of what really happened, represent historical events that changed American ways of thinking about power and those who exercise it; similarly, Pagán sometimes hints and sometimes addresses more directly how Roman narratives of conspiracy illuminate what it represented for the Romans. The book therefore looks in two directions: descriptively, toward a definition of conspiracy as the narrative vocabulary of ancient historiography shapes it; and theoretically, toward how narratives of conspiracy betray other Roman attitudes.
— Holly Hayes on Victoria Emma Pagán’ ‘Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History,’ Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004

Well, said I, that’s an advert that seems written for me (and possibly me alone). A quick recall of the book from the library (I wish I knew why it was out; is someone in Classics working on a similar project?) and, well, a few days of reading.

Advertising sucks.

Well, not really. ‘Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History’ is more literary analysis than a indepth discussion of conspiracies. Pagán is interested in how ancient historians explained the presence of conspiracies, noting:

In a society like ancient Rome, based on large-scale slave ownership, unequal relations of power and status, and the unequal distribution of wealth, conspiracy was doubtless far from the surface. By exaggerating the exceptionality of conspiracy, the historians were able to circumscribe its effects.
— p. 126

If you know Roman history (or have watched ‘I, Claudius’) then you will know that the end of the Republic/beginning of the Empire was mired in political games that often, at least, looked like conspiracies. It’s a point we should be mindful of today; a lot of the actions businesses and politicians engage in are conspiratorial, but we save the word ‘conspiracy’ for grander things, such as assassinations or coups.All in all, it’s an interesting book. I thought I was having trouble with it at first; the introduction talks about the book being a study of the use of slaves and women in conspiracy narratives, which seemed remarkably too much like certain bad crit lit I’ve read. These fictional creatures, women and slaves (since they are used as devices in the writing and rarely refer to historic individuals), reflect, according to the author, the distasteful aspect of Conspiracy Theories to Ancient Roman audiences. I found myself disagreeing with Pagan every time she wrote on these issues because, well, I don’t tend to find such post-modern interpretations useful. Yet, and this is humbling to say, I think she’s right. In Roman histories women are unusual creatures. Women had little to no rights in the Roman world and many of the great villains of Roman history are feminised (Caligula, for one). Pagan’s hypothesis is that slaves and women (virtually equal in the eyes of the Powers-That-Were in Rome) are the scapegoats for betrayed (unsuccesful and discovered) conspiracies in Rome because they represent plotting-in-secret. Good Roman men did everything in public; conspiring required hiding and doing things in prvate places, the kind of places that slaves and women would be found.

(It’s interesting to note that the women who tend to appear in these conspiracy narratives are inconstant; one historian will call ‘the women’ by one name while another will not, or just omit the name entirely…)

And then there is the confirmation (bias) I have from studying Roman history; women do get a raw deal from ancient sources. Powerful women end up being described like men; weak men end up being described as women and you never seem to find a male poisoner…

In the end the book really only produced (for my project) one interesting quote, which is:

While some conspiracies are indicative of failing morality, certain conspiracies are, morally speaking, good. Sometimes good citizens must join in secret with like-minded fellows to overthrow an oppressive government.
— p. 107

A lot of writers deny that the kind of conspiracy theories we find interesting are benign, but obviously this isn’t the case. The assassination of Caligula (who, unlike Tiberius and Nero, has never really been rehabilitated by modern historians) probably was a conspiracy of goodness, seeing that the conspirators don’t seem to have wanted to take power themselves but rather give it back to the Senate (for the historically challenged the German Imperial Guards (the Praetorians) decided that Caligula’s uncle should be Emperor and the Senate were too slow to act to block it; thus we have Claudius, my favourite of the Caesars, as the next Imperator and Princeps Senatus). Conspiracies of goodness have existed, may well exist now and probably will exist in future. But, I suspect, the general public just doesn’t find them anywhere near as interesting as the evil plots that threaten to return the Catholic Church to power and rob the United States of its independence.

Which, according to some conspiracy theories, it never had in the first place.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.