Tyrant, Thy Name is King: The Tragedy of Tiberius and Neo-Stoic Taciteanism

Iclal Cetin
State University of New York Fredonia

Iclal Cetin. "Tyrant, Thy Name is King: The Tragedy of Tiberius and Neo-Stoic Taciteanism". Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10). <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/tibetrag.htm>.


  1. In their joint manifesto in Neo-Historicism, Robin Wells, Glenn Burgess, and Rowland Wymer call for a recognition of the “otherness” of the past and warn the scholars “not to recruit past thinkers as precursive spokesman and women of modern values” (xi). Yet, rather than focusing on the alterity of the Roman world, seventeenth-century playwrights, who take Roman history and Senecan Stoicism as the basis of their literary works, expose the recurrence of tyranny in history. For these playwrights, the concept of tyranny does not only portend a continuum in terms of political oppression but it also signifies the perpetuation of the humanist discourse and thus allows for a critique of absolutism and antityranny. This article will specifically look into the anonymous Tragedy of Tiberius and for the first time offer a reading of this little-studied play in the context of antityrannical sentiment and Neo-Stoic Taciteanism. This tyrant-tragedy—highly influenced by Seneca’s Moral Essays and tragedies and based on Tacitus’ Annals—allows us to rethink the Neo-historicist portrayal of antityrannical resistance in Jacobean England.

  2. Neo-historicism’s skeptical view of Jacobean absolutism is in some ways related to the perception of how the humanist language influenced realpolitik or whether there was any real political reason for using the humanist discourse in a subversive manner. In his review of Peltonen’s Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political Thought: 1570-1640, Glenn Burgess argues, for instance, that humanist language was used in Jacobean England to construct the ideal of a commonwealth that could flourish under royal dominion (9). Hence, the humanist language, for Burgess, is not a language of subversion. Peltonen argues on the other hand that “classical humanism was a ‘mode of discourse’ or a ‘political vocabulary’ rather than ‘a programme’; it was a means of grasping and conceptualizing politics, rather than a monolithic and detailed plan or strategy” (7). It is true that classical humanism provided the Jacobean thinkers and writers with a political vocabulary but this language also revealed an ideology about tyranny that was very different from the one articulated by James I. What is more, the Neo-Stoic and Tacitean discourse on tyranny helped fashion tyrants on stage not merely in terms of theatricality but also in opposition to absolutist discourses on tyranny. This certainly does not suggest that Roman tragedies were militant about giving out political messages on antityranny, but it makes us question Jonathan Goldberg’s argument in James I and the Politics of Literature that there is no causality between the reign of James I and the Roman plays of Jacobean England except for the mutual influence of the royal and dramatic language or articulation of power (177). As James Holstun argues in Ehud’s Dagger:
    If we wish to consider the ability of early Stuart citizens to assemble in groups and think critically and collectively about authority, tyranny, and resistance, then Parliament’s failure to debate Vindicae, Contra Tyrannos, tells us less than London’s obsession with antityrannical revenge tragedies and Roman plays--cultural productions that looped back around into political practice. (80)
    In this sense, antityrannical Jacobean plays such as The Tragedy of Tiberius were not limited by the sovereign’s political lexicon, neither was the mutuality Goldberg contends immune from criticism. Opposition to tyranny persisted during the Jacobean period, and antityrannical plays became one of the most important oppositional voices. In Absolute Monarchy and the Stuart Constitution Glenn Burgess contends “Stoic and Tacitean themes were incorporated into the existing discourse of court, and used very often to reflect on the disappointments and frustrations of court life” in England (54). This is certainly not the case in The Tragedy of Tiberius, which shows that while James I was vehemently opposing Neo-Stoic Taciteanism, the same teachings were highly influential in plays that perceived Jacobean absolutism as nothing less than tyranny. Calvin, Erasmus, and the anonymous playwright of The Tragedy of Tiberius’ interpretation and appropriation of Seneca’s De clementia may certainly differ, and the play’s dedication to a member of Prince Henry’s court may even suggest a critique of James I’s court, but this article will show that The Tragedy of Tiberius is not Jonson’s Sejanus, neither is it The Revenger’s Tragedy.  It does not show the waning integrity of the royal court, filled with ‘palace rats’ and corrupt counsels and dukes. Its Neo-Stoic and Tacitean theme reveals not only “an episode in the long history of court discourse” (54) as Burgess argues but a means of raising an antityrannical voice, not a loose response to the court, but a more focused critique of sovereignty.

  3. It is equally difficult to conceptualize the tyrant on the Jacobean stage merely within the framework of theatricality, as Rebecca Bushnell suggests in The Tragedies of Tyrants. [1] The antityrannical stance in The Tragedy of Tiberius against the Bodinean absolutist dicta certainly transcends the theatrical image of the tyrant that one sees in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine or Greene’s Selimus. The opposing definitions of tyranny in Jacobean tyrant-tragedies and in James’s political ideology do not purport a rigid on-stage/off-stage division however, but imply that there were conflicts as much as convergences between the two, particularly on the subject of tyranny. Even though James I argues in Basilicon Doron and The Trew Law that kings can never degenerate into tyrants—nominally or otherwise—Jacobean tyrant-tragedies convey a rather Neo-Stoic and Tacitean antityrannical tone suggesting that kings can be tyrants if they act tyrannically.[2]  In this sense, The Tragedy of Tiberius, written in Neo-Stoic and Tacitean fashion, defies the absolutist doctrine by revoking the image of the tyrant as a lawfully crowned king, and the fact that it was published anonymously and dedicated to a member of Prince Henry’s court signifies the polyphony on tyranny in the Jacobean courts.  

  4. The Tragedy of Tiberius was published for Francis Burton and printed by Edward Allde in 1607 with no stage or re-print history.[3] In his dedication letter, Francis Burton notes that the anonymous writer is young, handsome and well educated in Tacitus and thinks his “inwardness” with this Roman historian should win him the favor of Sir Arthur Mannering,[4] who was a favorite in Henry’s court before his involvement with Anne Turner.[5] While clarifying the strong link between Henry’s court and this anonymous play, this article does not offer a new theory on the identity of the playwright. It does argue, however that it is a more arduous task to fathom the playwright’s own motivation for writing an antityrannical play in Jacobean England. He must have been aware of the scandal surrounding Ben Jonson’s Sejanus and James I’s denunciation of Neo-Stoic Taciteanism in Basilicon Doron. In this sense, the sarcastic remark at the end of the play about Tiberius slaying a poet because “In a doleful tragedy,/ He rail’d on Agamemnon’s cruelty.” (3357-8) remains a less subtle allusion than Jonson’s Cordus in Sejanus, yet it offers an insight as to why the playwright might have preferred anonymity.

  5. As J.H.M. Salmon points out, in England, upon the death of Sidney, the legacy of Seneca and Tacitus had passed on to a group of scholars such as the Earl of Rutland, Henry Savile, Sir William Cornwallis, and Sir John Hayward; all of whom congregated around Prince Henry (207). The antityrannical element in Tacitus’s Annals highly appealed to Lipsius, William Cornwallis, and Thomas Lodge who were not shy about drawing analogies between their contemporary political world and that of the post-Augustan empire; combining the antityrannical historiography of Tacitus and the equally antityrannical ethics of Seneca in their critique. Even though Shakespeare’s fascination with Plutarch continued in the Jacobean era, as Robert Evans points out in Jonson, Lipsius, and the Politics of Renaissance Stoicism Tacitean historiography influenced the Roman tragedies of the Stuart era immensely. One could argue then that The Tragedy of Tiberius was not written due to an arcane scholarly interest in Tacitus. The implied solidarity between the anonymous playwright, Burton, and Mannering on the grandeur of Tacitus in Francis Burton’s dedication letter may not only be a means of marketing the play to a patron, but also of euphemistically noting that the playwright appeals to the political and literary tendencies of Henry’s court. More importantly, this anonymous Roman tragedy reveals its anti-Jacobean colors not only by a subtle and circumlocutory dedication to a member of Prince Henry’s court but also by a more overt and courageous critique of the Jacobean discourse of sovereignty via Neo-Stoic Tacitean paradigms.

  6. James I was certainly well-versed in the Roman history and philosophy. After all, his tutor George Buchanan was a pioneer of Seneca and Tacitus in France and England. Nevertheless, James I had fallen out of his relationship with Buchanan as well as Tacitus and Seneca. In “Stuart Absolutism and the ‘Utility’ of Tacitus” Alan Bradford notes that James I’s anti-Tacitean reaction is better revealed by Edmund Bolton’s 1624 play Nero Caesar, Monarchy Depraved, which received “royal approbation through its subversion and distortion of the Tacitean view of monarchy” (139). Bradford emphasizes that Bolton’s play celebrated Stuart absolutism “toward the Roman Principate, a point diametrically opposed to that of Tacitus in the Annals” (139). He further notes that “James’s sponsorship of Bolton to correct what both took to be Tacitus’s republicanism was an expedient but failed, but the very fact that the king should have resorted to it at all indicates how acute a problem the Tacitean revival had posed for Stuart absolutism” (148). J.H.M. Salmon in a similar case, points to James I’s conversation with Isaac Casaubon in 1610, to show the king’s anti-Tacitean view. He notes that in this conversation, “the king doubted that Tacitus deserved his reputation for political wisdom, and Casaubon repeated the criticism, expressed in his edition of Polybius, that Tacitus merely provided a breviary of evil actions” (223). As Mark Curtis notes the king also suspended Oxford and Cambridge lectures on Tacitus and further expressed his deep disturbance by these political philosophers in his writings and speeches.[6] This overt anti-Taciteanism was not exclusively about the historiography of Tacitus, of course. The fact that a historian would indulge in presenting the history of post-Augustus imperial Rome as a hotbed of tyranny indicated a discourse of tyranny contradictory to the royal discourse on absolute sovereignty.

  7. James I stressed repeatedly in The True Law (1598) that not the Roman republic but monarchy was the “true pattern of divinity,” and that the king could only be accountable to God, not to the people of the parliament (64). He similarly told Prince Henry in Basilicon Doron that lawful, Christian kings could never be tyrants, regardless of their ethical beings and that he was a king chosen by God, to be a “little God to sit on his throne and rule over other men” (12). As Perry Anderson also argues, such a claim for unquestionable power naturally brought about the King’s conflicts with the people (and also with the gentry and the parliament). James I’s absolutist view of sovereignty caused fracases between him and the parliament on numerous issues, including taxation. A less overt dissonance also presented itself in the king’s attitude towards Tacitus and Neo-Stoicism. The perils of such a divergent anti-royalist and antityrannical discourse are what accounts for the anonymity of The Tragedy of Tiberius in the first place.

  8. The Annals-based plotline of The Tragedy of Tiberius is more incendiary than that of Ben Jonson’s Sejanus. The former opens with the funeral of Augustus, whose long reign had brought peace and stability to Rome. The opening scene of the play reflects the sorrow felt for the loss of a great emperor, but more importantly, it shows the anxiety felt over the political gap his death creates. This is why the bereavement immediately gives way to a crisis of succession. Even though Young Drusus’ elegy conveys that no successor can equal Augustus in virtue, Rome needs an emperor and the body politic needs a head. The playwright thus presents this urgency to crown in order to circumvent anarchy which implies that virtue is not a sine qua non for sovereignty. The ethical differences between Germanicus and Tiberius become manifest once Tiberius’s tyrannical acts start to cast a shadow over his reign. First, he shuts down the Sibylline temples, dispatches the counsels, and collaborates with Sejanus to send Germanicus on a mission to Armenia in order to distance him from the throne. Then, together with Piso, he plots to poison Germanicus in addition to murdering his own mother and his son, Drusus Tiberius, Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina; her sons, Drusus and Nero, and finally, his counsel, Sejanus. The quasi-Hamletian Caligula, the only surviving son of Germanicus, in a rather stultifying manner ensures his survival and kills Tiberius. The tragedy that begins with the solemn funeral of a merciful and virtuous emperor thus ends with the violent tyrannicide of Tiberius. In this sense, The Tragedy of Tiberius shows the dismal world of tyrants and foreshadows the abysmal tyranny of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Yet, when compared to Ben Jonson’s Sejanus, Tiberius surfaces as a more overtly antityrannical tragedy. Whereas Jonson’s play almost defends apatheia in the face of tyranny, the latter contests tyranny altogether. Tiberius is not the arch-tyrant in Jonson’s play, either. As Jonson notes in the synopsis, it is Sejanus, who “deviseth to make Tiberius’ self his means, and instills into his ears many doubts and suspicions” (40).  Jonson’s play opens with the tribunes condemning corrupt councils and perils of false flattery. Sabinus describes tyranny as pertinent to flattery, “Tyrants arts/ Are to give flatterers grace, accusers power/ And those may seem to kill whom they devour” (1.1). Thus, Jonson’s Sejanus is more about how a state falls (hence gets corrupted) in the hands of tyranny whereas The Tragedy of Tiberius depicts “what unto that state in Nero’s reign befell” (1). In this manner, the Tragedy of Tiberius deals specifically with Tiberius’s tyranny and in doing so it is more loyal to Tacitus, who was also predominantly interested in depicting Tiberius’s tyranny. [7]

  9. It is not a coincidence that the Senecan binary of a benevolent king and a tyrant also constitutes the inception of the Tragedy of Tiberius. In fact, the Senecan representation of tyrant as a vengeful, merciless, temperamental, and unethical ruler and numerous allusions to Thyestes and De clementia reveal the Neo-Stoic bent of the tragedy clearly.  Drusus Tiberius’s eulogy for Augustus in the beginning of the play articulates the traits of a king in the humanist tradition and by recounting Augustus’ virtues, Drusus emphasizes the true nature of a king in the most Senecan sense:   

              The true successor of great Julius,
     I will call him merciful, yet just withal:
     In mercy just, in justice merciful
     I will praise his meekness, yet in honors robes:
     In honor meek, in meekness honorable. (52-64)

    The persistence on mercy and the apotheosis of Augustus is a direct allusion to De clementia where Seneca portrays Augustus’ rule as one of peace and mercy and notes “Mercy, then, makes rulers not only more honored, but safer, and is at the same time the glory of sovereign power and its surest protection. For why is it that kings have grown old and have handed their thrones to children and grandchildren, while a tyrant’s sway is accursed and short?” (391). While young Drusus eulogizes the virtues of Augustus, Tiberius admits that he is old, drowsy, and can be overruled by his mother:
    An emperor must wake, I drowsy am:
    An emperor must be valiant, I am old:
    Sole monarch must he be, my mother lives
    And must, shall be honored while she lives.
    An emperor must be able to endure,
    (in war) the winter’s frosts, the summers heat,
    I feel a palsy rooted in my bones.
    He must have honey dropping eloquence:
    I for my part have never played the orator. (106-117)
    Tiberius is utterly conscious of the fact that a head is needed for the body politic, yet his confession of ethical and physical defects in front of the senate is not a form of self-humbling. Quite the contrary, he is asserting that he will secure absolute sovereign power even though he lacks the fundamental virtues. In other words, for Tiberius, sovereignty, just like hereditary succession, may be divorced from virtue and ethics and that is why the logic in his argument does not indicate his diffidence but foreshadows his forthcoming tyranny. Subsequently, the fact that he is not being self-critical becomes undeniably manifest when his self-denigration is taken too literally by Asinius. Asinius’s insinuation on synarchy or that he should pick a part of the empire and leave the rest,[8] is retorted with the claim that regardless of his weaknesses, lack of valour and virtue, Tiberius will acquire absolute sovereignty (174-181). A close reading of Tiberius’s rhetoric in this scene ironically discloses that he returns from Rhodes to avenge Rome and the Romans, but this early warning goes unnoticed by the senators. Tiberius’s use of the simile Etna (21) is so peculiar that if it is employed in the same tradition of Seneca and early modern tragedians, it signifies not sorrow for the late Augustus but revenge:
    Could I but shadow out in mask of words,
    The sorrowing language of my groaning soul,
    Or with a stream of tears alay the flame,
    Wherewith my heart doth like an Aetna burn,
    Ye Gods I call to witness of my thoughts. (17-21)
    The eruption of the volcano is usually associated with an outbreak of anger or revenge against a whole population, but why does Tiberius use it in Augustus’s funeral, while mourning for him? It is Hera in Seneca’s Hercules Furens who foresees Hercules’s rage in the fires of Etna:
     So fiercer than the fires
     Of Etna’s forge he’ll rage. But thus to move
     Alcides, stung with bitter rage and crazed,
     First Juno, thou must be thyself insane. (1.2.120-125)
    In Hercules on Oeta, Dejanira uses Etna to express her anger and revenge toward
    Hercules and Iole, whom she fears will make Dejanira a stepdame by marrying Hercules. Thus she says:
    Yet there remains
    A greater terror than the Hydra’s rage:
    The anger of an injured wife. Burn thus
    The flames of Etna? This my wrath
    Can conquer all thy conquests, shall a slave
    Seize on my marriage bed? (2.2.305)
    If the playwright is using the simile in its original Senecan context then Aetna should
    signify Tiberius’s wrath and revenge on the Romans. In a moment of insincere mourning, it may seem that Tiberius’s allusion to the volcano is an insignificant means of articulating his sorrow, but because a few scenes later Tiberius’s fake mourning leaves its place to political ambition and desire for revenge on Asinius and Germanicus, it may be inferred that Tiberius reveals his tyrannous revenge for his exile from the very beginning.

  10. Tiberius’s divine right to rule is not contested by the senators who expect sovereign power to “cease the weeping of the state” (135) and although Germanicus forebodes Tiberius’s tyranny:

              O Rome!
    Augustus dead, Tiberius emperor,
    The Roman senate glozing flatterers,
    The legions discontent and mutinous:
    The praetors tyrants in their provinces:
    The navy spoiled, unrigged, dismembered:
    The city made a brothel house of sin. (510-516)

    It becomes clear that sovereign power is detached from its ethical facet and the sovereign is judged neither by his deeds or his words in this realm. Right before Nerva crowns him, Tiberius even presages his imminent cruelty and tyranny, telling the senators that they should re-think their irreversible decision:
  11.           You are to choose but once, consider well;
    After, all subjects to your emperor.
    If you constrain me to this doubtful task,
    And I (as God forbid) should change my mind.
    Turning my pity to a lion’s rage,
    My snow white conscience to a scarlet dye. (196-201)

    As senators bypass the nature of Tiberius and his reign, they fall victim to his tyranny. Tiberius knows that if the distinction between a king and a tyrant is blurred, senators will also lose their oppositional voice and his absolutist statement denotes that all tyrannical acts acquire legitimacy after he gets crowned as king. His speech also contradicts the humanist idea that a king cannot be exculpated from his tyrannical acts only because he is crowned as the king.

  12. Isolated from the election and coronation scenes, the plebeians mark Tiberius’ tyranny in his unhappy expressions rather than in political performance:

     1. Did you not see our new emperor how bravely he came from his coronation?
     2. Yes, it was a gallant sight sure, but did you mark his countenance? My thought tis mightily altered within this five or six quarters of a year since I saw him last.
     2. I that same looks I promise is an ill sign, pray God all be well.
     3. Augustus was a goodly man, and I hope he has left such a gracious sample, that Tiberius will not forget himself.
     1. Never talk of Augustus more, we shall never see his like in Rome, unless Germanicus might be our emperor.
    Om: O worthy Germanicus! He is a flower indeed. My masters, let’s not talk of these state matters, for I am afraid we have said too much already, if the emperor should know of it. (304-10)

    The plebeians, like Germanicus, assert that the sovereign’s moral acts are still relevant. Even though they are rather timorous of using the public forum for overtly criticizing Tiberius’s reign, they distinguish between Germanicus and Tiberius on the basis of their morality, graciousness, and integrity.

  13. As the play progresses Germanicus indeed proves to be an epitome of Senecan virtues of clemency and juxtaposed with the terrorizing Tiberius, his acts remain benevolent: while in Armenia he offers peace to Vonones even though he has the power to kill him, “Yet, know my mercy far exceeds thy strength, / An olives branch wreathed with humility (1780-81). Unlike Germanicus however, Tiberius’ reign is presented as unjust and highly arbitrary: when captured by Tiberius (2680), Sejanus remarks: “ I crave no pity, neither fear thy pride,/  Whose pity only served for a truce, / To levy new supply of tyranny” (2685-87). The playwright’s portrayal of the stark contrast between two sovereign figures in the play is distinctly related to the Neo-Stoic concepts of constancy, benevolence, and mercy, and both the tyrant and the king are described in relation to these qualities. This descriptive effort is also observed in the way the playwright mobilizes the humanist terminology. For instance, the use of animal imagery serves as a way of substantiating the antityrannical voice in the play.[9] As the following lines of Agrippina show, her antityrannical resistance uses the rhetoric of bestiality. She is holding a mirror to the emperor and through that image we witness the contrasting image of a tyrannical Tiberius and a benevolent Germanicus, alluding to Senecan paradigms in De clementia. In this manner, as in the previous dialogue between the plebeians, Germanicus certainly comes forth as the epitome of constancy and Stoicism, but tragically, he remains too ideal a Stoic figure, since his Stoic stance prevents him from rebelling against the tyranny of Tiberius:

    Impatient fury fly Germanicus,
    How is thy reason dimmed with cloudy passion?
    Proud swelling dropsy, ever gnawing worm,
    Insatiate vulture, vile ambition,
    Deluding Sirene, where is Germanicus?
    The Legions love thee not for to aspire,
    Thy virtue shines not in oppression;
    No honor in ambitious aray:
    No meekness in traitors happiness,
    Thy father got thee not for to rebel,
    Nor Caesar did abet thy treacheries,
    By nature heir, then be thou natural. (576-586)

  14.  Germanicus’ self-mastery over his ambition and passion inadvertently leads to Tiberius’ unleashing of his tyranny. Agrippina, determined to starve herself after Germanicus’ death, uses a wide array of animal imagery to portray the iniquitous and tyrannical nature of Tiberius:

    Monster of monsters, ill is too too good,
    Cruel, too mild a title for thy deeds:
    Nature could never find a man so bad
    That might resemble thy foul villanies
    Toad, crocodile, asp, viper, basilisk
    Too holsome, tame, milde, gentle, virtuous,
    For Nero’s poison, fury, envy, wrath. (2913-19)

    The use of animal imagery used here is carefully designed to reveal both the extreme cruelty of Tiberius and to depict the inadequateness of the catalogue of images to articulate the tyranny of Tiberius. Agrippina’s intrepid assail on Tiberius is not mere maritality, she portrays an image of a bloody tyrant who turns the country into a slaughterhouse:
    My last fond Tyrant know that I will speak
    In spite of Nero, in disdain of Rome
    Nero the butcher, bloody shambles Rome,
    Who sells the fairest ware at meanest price. (2954-58)
    Francis Burton might not have mentioned him in his dedication letter, but the playwright’s references to Thyestes and, in particular, Atreus’s banquet scene (2480) and to Euripides’s play, the Bacchae, (2400) also signifies the increasing Senecan influence in the tragedy. When Sejanus concocts a terrible plan to make Tiberius suspect his own son, Tiberius exclaims that he will not forgive his son and notes:
    Talk of forgiveness in some petty kings
    Not in the state of mighty emperors,
    This day he dooth provide Thyestes feast,
    And bids his father to the bloody cates. (2479-83)
    Clearly, young Drusus is likened to Atreus here, and Tiberius presents himself not as
    Thyestes but as Thyestes’ sons. Yet, Tiberius’ first sentence, “talk of forgiveness in some petty kings,” is the almost verbatim statement of Atreus, who fails to forgive Thyestes and gives in to revenge, anger and violence. As the minister tries to dissuade him from taking revenge on his brother, Atreus decisively notes in the second act of Thyestes “The king who binds himself to want what’s right/ Sits on a shaky throne” and adds “Sanctity, piety, trust are luxuries for private life./ Leave kings to go their own way.” Via his allusion to Thyestes, the playwright of The Tragedy of Tiberius then seeks to evoke the image of a Senecan banquet since Tiberius and his son will meet at a feast that day. In this sense, both the parallels between Seneca’s Moral Essays, particularly De clementia and the allusions to Seneca’s tragedies in The Tragedy of Tiberius strengthen the Neo-Stoic conceptualization of antityranny in the play.

  15. The climactic turn in the tragedy comes with Tiberius killing his own progeny. With the death of Young Drusus, the lineage for succession is disrupted and Tiberius enters a phase of frenzy: he stabs four messengers consequently, puts a burning crown on Sejanus’s head, causes Agrippina to die, stabs her keeper, and as Nero and Drusus feed on each other’s arms and die, Tiberius exclaims, “Virtue go with him, vice stay with me, / Till I have massacred my prisoners” (3123-24). Even on his deathbed, as he crawls with pain, Tiberius rages like a tyrant, threatening to, “Burn even all the temples of the gods, / That cannot help the Roman emperor (3339-40). In this rather Faustian moment, Tiberius is portrayed as being abandoned by the gods.

  16. At the end of the play, it is Caligula who evokes Tiberius’s nemesis by recalling his execution of Zeno:
    There Nero, the hate of Rome lies butchered,
    He raigned noe day, but some were murthered,
    Asking his master Zeno a Greek word,
    What dialect? He answered Dorice,
    And therefore killed him, for because he thought
    He mocked him for his Rhodian banishment. (3348-53)
    The death of Zeno in the hands of Tiberius can be nothing but a final sarcasm.
    Although Suetonius notes in The Twelve Caesars that Zeno is banished to the island of Cinara, the playwright presents Tiberius as the murderer of Zeno, thus metaphorically making him the enemy of Stoicism (and Neo-Stoicism), perhaps harking back at James I’s critique of Stoics in Basilicon Doron.  

  17. James Holstun’s argument that antityrannical revenge tragedies increased in Stuart England could then be complemented by the analysis of Roman tragedies such as The Tragedy of Tiberius, which show the continuing discussion of tyranny and the persistence of the use of the humanist discourse in portraying tyrants during the Jacobean era. It was mostly the divorce of sovereignty from a deterministic divine-right theory and a subsequent critique of the ethical nature of the sovereign figure that contradicted and opposed James I’s view that tyrants could at best be a scourge from God sent to the sinful lot. The Tragedy of Tiberius in this sense engages in a comparative portrayal of Augustus, Tiberius, and Germanicus, showing that their ethical and political differences not only draw the line between a king and a tyrant but the same differences also determine the welfare of the empire and the populus.

  18. Particularly in the case of this anonymous tragedy, the Tacitean and Neo-Stoic influence is not mobilized solely to reflect on the corruption of the court, as Glenn Burgess contends, neither does the humanist discourse of tyranny in the play parallel James I’s absolutist discourse of tyranny in Basilicon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies. Quite the contrary, the Tacitean historiography, Seneca’s De Clementia and Thyestes contribute to the antityrannical tone of the play, which shows that a lawful king can indeed degenerate into a tyrant and be faced with tyrannicide. In this manner, The Tragedy of Tiberius shows the polyphony on the discourse of tyranny in Jacobean England, particularly the dissonance between the Neo-Stoic Taciteans and James I on the subject of the portrayals of tyrannical reigns and tyrannicide.  



[1] The discussion of tyranny in early modern drama has been the subject of other studies in the past. In the mid-twentieth century, W. A. Armstrong explored the way in which tyranny was used in the political and dramatic works of the Elizabethan era. In his work, he claims that during the sixteenth-century, the sermons of the Anglican church, the books, and the plays collectively recited the fall of evil kings, and by this they all hoped to urge the monarch to live up to the highest ideals of his position by the method of speculum principis (161-2). Armstrong claims that “In Tudor England, tyrant-tragedies like Cambises and Mustapha showed that divine intervention, without a subject’s raising a hand against him, is the ideal solution to the problem of his tyranny from the point of view of contemporary morality” (165). Armstrong’s paradigms in studying the Elizabethan conception of tyranny in early modern drama do not suffice to fully explicate and interpret the Roman tyrant-tragedies in early Jacobean England, which show a stronger sense of antityranny and resistance. The most exhaustive study of tyrant-tragedies in the last two decades is offered by Rebecca Bushnell in Tragedies of Tyrants, which studies the tyrants in light of the Platonic tradition and suggests that “to understand the representation of the tyrant on the Renaissance stage, we need to investigate the origins of this ideology of opposition constructing the tyrant’s unstable figure in the tradition of Western political thought that stems from Plato and Aristotle” (9). I suggest that Seneca and Tacitus have played a more dominant role in the representation of tyrants on Jacobean stage. Moreover, for Bushnell, Renaissance drama “locates the tyrant at center stage even though he was meant to be pushed to the margins of political life and humanity” (187). I would argue, however, that this prospect may limit the discussion of tyranny to theatricality. This article suggests, however, that it is also possible to look at the question of tyranny as a real political issue in Jacobean England. In this respect, one may argue that, as long as they remained as the binary opposite of monarchs in ethical and political terms, tyrants were never at the margins of seventeenth-century political life. Consequently, Jacobean tyrant-tragedies reflect the anxiety over James I’s absolutist discourse and show that not God but the tyrannical acts of sovereigns upset the socio-economic equilibrium.

[2] In “The Figure of the Tyrant in English Revolutionary Thought,” Robert Zaller shows that the reaction to the absolutist claims of the Stuart Dynasty resulted in a “climactic revival of the classical and humanist figure of the tyrant, and one with an unprecedented outcome: the trial and execution of a reigning monarch, Charles I, and the abolition of monarchy in England” (586).

[3]The present study of the play is based on the Malone Society edition of the tragedy edited by W. W. Greg in 1915.

[4] The most relevant source for biographical information about Arthur Mannering remains John Oldmixon’s The Life and Posthumous Works of Arthur Maynwaring. Oldmixon notes that being “a favorite of Prince Henry,” Mannering was “a man of gallantry” who, after his affair with Anne Turner, “lessened his interest in the prince by concerning himself for that wicked woman” (3). Oldmixon notes that Sir Arthur Maynwaring was exposed to Forman’s spells and even implies that his position in Henry’s court must have deteriorated due to the effect of Turner’s magic. He thus claims, “When the counsels and Mrs. Turner, intended to practice their love experiments on the Earl of Essex, by powders and philters, and applied to Dr. Forman of Lambeth, a Quack, for the drugs, Mrs. Turner to see how effectually they would operate, gave them first to Sir Arthur Mannering, who was so enflamed by them, that he rode fifteen miles through a storm of rain and thunder, to Turner’s house. Wilson in his Life of King James, says, he scarce knew where he was, till he was there” (3).

[5] In Truth Brought to Light by Time: The Proceedings Touching the Divorce Between Lady Frances Howard and Robert Earl of Essex, printed for Michael Sparke in 1651, the court evidence brings in a document by Simon Forman and shows that:

There were also enchantments showed in court, written in parchment wherein
were contained all the names of the blessed trinity, mentioned in the scriptures;
and in another parchment, +B+C+D+E and in a third likewise parchment were
written all the names of the holy trinity as also a figure, in which was written this
word corpus, and upon the parchment was fastened a little piece of the skin of
man. In some of these parchments, the devils had particular names, who were
conjured to torment the Lord Sommerset, and Sir Arthur Manwaring, if their loves
should not continue, the one to the countess, the other to Mrs. Turner (138).

In The Life and Posthumous Works of Arthur Maynwaring, John Oldmixon not only confirms this love affair between Anne Turner and Mannering, which is infamously spiced up by Forman’s potions, but he also gives a better genealogical map of Sir Arthur Mannering. Oldmixon refers to the Maynwarings as an “old but decaying” family (2).

[6] See Mark H. Curtis, “The Alienated Intellectuals of Early Stuart England,” Past and Present, 23 (1962): 26-27.

[7] Yet, the play itself deviates from the historical sources in many instances to create a theatrical effect. It is the citizens, for instance, who execute Piso to revenge Germanicus’s death; whereas in the Twelve Caesars, Tiberius kills Piso for having poisoned Germanicus (125). Similarly, Suetonius writes that Nero is forced to commit suicide and Drusus eats the flock from the mattress because of forced hunger (126). In the early modern version of Tiberius, however, the two brothers feed on each other’s arms to suppress their hunger. Thus, the playwright effectively combines his knowledge of Roman history with Senecan drama.

[8] The anonymous playwright takes the skeleton of Asinius’s speech almost verbatim from Tacitus, whose Asinius Gallus says, “by this question I did not mean that you should do an impracticable thing, and share that power which cannot be separated; but I meant to reason you into a confession that the commonwealth is but one body, and can be governed by one soul” (15). Still the dramatization of the divine order and the sun king analogy are clearly the playwright’s own depiction of monarchy.

[9] In Book 1, chapter 19 of De clementia, Seneca uses one of the most powerful parables to distinguish a king from a tyrant, “bees are most easily provoked, and, for the size of their bodies, excellent fighters, and where they wound they leave their stings; but the king himself has no sting. Nature did not wish him to be cruel or to seek revenge that would be so costly, and so she removed his weapon, and left his anger unarmed” (411). Virgil Georgics (4.150-178), also used by Thomas Aquinas in De Regimine Principum (1.2; 1.3, 12).





Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).