When archaeology meets literature…

Two days ago, I visited the British Museum.

I had a look around, saw various exhibits, sheltered from the rain outside…

There was one exhibit in particular which I wanted to see: the tombstone of Julius Classicianus.

Classicianus (Full name: Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus) belonged to an aristocratic family in Gaul, and was appointed procurator in Roman Britain. This much information is provided for us by the British Museum’s information plaque. A procurator was a financial official, who assisted the governor of the province by administering its financial affairs – in particular, the collection of taxes. Another photograph of this tombstone:

And the inscription (not all of which is clearly visible on the tombstone), again, taken from the British Museum information placard:

Of course, none of this yet explains why I was particularly interested in seeing Classicianus’ tombstone. The reason is that he is mentioned in Book XIV of Tacitus’ Annals – a text which I have been studying. Classicianus features in chapter 38, in the following section of text, taken, as usual, from the Perseus Digital Library:

gentesque praeferoces tardius ad pacem inclinabant, quia Iulius Classicianus, successor Cato missus et Suetonio discors, bonum publicum privatis simultatibus impediebat disperseratque novum legatum opperiendum esse, sine hostili ira et superbia victoris clementer deditis consulturum. simul in urbem mandabat, nullum proeliorum finem expectarent, nisi succederetur Suetonio, cuius adversa pravitati ipsius, prospera ad fortunam referebat.

Translation (by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Used by the Perseus Digital Library, and also by The Modern Library’s edition):

Nations, too, so high-spirited inclined the more slowly to peace, because Julius Classicanus [sic], who had been sent as successor to Catus and was at variance with Suetonius, let private animosities interfere with the public interest, and had spread an idea that they ought to wait for a new governor who, having neither the anger of an enemy nor the pride of a conqueror, would deal mercifully with those who had surrendered. At the same time he stated in a despatch to Rome that no cessation of fighting must be expected, unless Suetonius were superseded, attributing that general’s disasters to perverseness and his successes to good luck.

The background to this extract: the general Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Paulinus) has put down the rebellion of several native British tribes, led by Boudicca. Now, he is consolidating his victory: the army has been concentrated, and reinforcements sent from mainland Europe.

I think it is probably fair to say that the extract above does not give Classicianus a very favourable review. It is the words “privatis simultatibus” that reveal the most: the negative connotations of the word “simultatibus” (translated above as “animosities”, but I prefer “quarrels” or “grudges”) imply that Classicianus’ character is resentful, to the extent that it impedes the public interest (“bonum publicum”) The chiastic structure in “bonum publicum privatis simultatibus” (noun-adjective-adjective-noun) emphasises the antithesis of “publicum privatis”, which essentially juxtaposes Classicianus’ duty (i.e. to uphold the interest of the public) with his actions (imposing his private quarrels on the province). These words suggest that Tacitus distrusts Classicianus’ opinion of Suetonius.

But why does Tacitus give Classicianus such a poor write-up? To find out, I think we have to look at the next chapter – chapter 39 – of Tacitus’ Annals XIV. In this next chapter, the emperor sends the freedman Polyclitus to Britain: this freedman reports back to the emperor rather more favourably about Suetonius, so the latter is allowed to stay on as governor. When, however, Suetonius makes an error – losing a few ships and their crews on the shore – he is recalled from the province and loses his position as governor.

Tacitus was the son-in-law of Agricola, who was recalled from Britain, probably in unfair circumstances, by the emperor Domitian. Perhaps Tacitus believes that Suetonius’ circumstances were similar: therefore, he portrays Classicianus in a negative light, in order to imply that the latter’s report on Suetonius was distorted. Indeed, other sources (e.g. cited below) suggest that Classicianus’ criticisms were in fact correct, and that Suetonius’ heavy-handed crackdown against the British tribes was severely damaging the economy of the province. In fact, the Encyclopaedia Britannica states that Classicianus “possessed a truer vision of provincial partnership with Rome [than Suetonius]”. Taking this evidence into account, it seems plausible to conclude that Tacitus’ depiction of Classicianus was unfair.


“Classicianus, the procurator.” Museum of London. Museum of London, n.d. Web. 11 July 2012. <http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Collections-Research/Research/Your-Research/Londinium/analysis/publiclife/administration/6+Class.htm&gt;. This source suggests that Classicianus

Tacitus. The Annals & the Histories. Trans. Alfred  John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Ed. Moses Hadas. N.p.: Modern Library, 2003. Print.

“Julius Classicianus”.  Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 11 Jul. 2012