|Issued in Greece in 44 BC, by Brutus and Cassius|
The Roman republic was founded on the back of libertas, according to Livy. The centrality of libertas to the citizenry of the Republic was vividly recalled during the triumphal processions, when the citizenry as well as the troops shouted obscenities at the triumphing general (who was himself dressed up to resemble Jupiter). It was thought that this ceremonial cursing of the general served as a reminder of his mortality but also as a protreptic against tyranny. Brutus's libertas, after all, is what banished the tyranny of the Tarquins.
Caesar's assassins recalled this fact when they presented themselves as liberators of a state and people who had been cast into slavery by Caesar's supposed tyranny. The story goes that, as the assassins made their way from Pompey's theater complex to the Capitoline Hill (where they were able to defend themselves from possible retaliation by angry citizens or allies of Caesar), one of the group held a spear with a freedman's cap on the end. Shouts of "libertas" were apparently heard as well. When the assassins issued coinage to pay their troops, they reminded them of their deed with a freedman's cap placed between two daggers and the legend EID MAR (the obverse showed the head of Brutus).
Libertas, or the freedom to speak without fear of repercussions, was jeopardized during the late Republic--one need only think of the political violence that marred Roman politics in the 2nd and 1st century BC (Gracchi Brothers; Marius; Sullan proscriptions). Cicero's proscription by Marc Antony, apparently in retaliation for Cicero's vitriolic Philippics, functioned as a clear sign that libertas had been banished from Rome. It was never fully restored under the emperors, though some emperors were more tolerant of disagreement than others.
Morford's article takes up the topic of libertas in Pliny's Panegyricus, a text composed not long after Domitian's assassination (and, more to the point, the senatorial campaign to cast Domitian as a tyrant and Trajan as a liberator). As Morford explains, "Pliny was offering to Trajan and to his fellow senators a serious statement on the relationship between the princeps and his colleagues after the autocracy of Domitian" (575). Part of what this statement required was a reformulation of libertas to include the attributes of obsequium and modestia [sidenote: it's interesting to observe that these virtues appear nowhere, as far as I can recall, on Trajan's coinage. Do we see them appropriated by Trajan in any of his imperial iconography?]
The Panegyricus was delivered on 1 September 100 CE. It marked "the first time that a living princeps had been eulogized in his presence by meas of a speech that was designed to persuade rather than to flatter" (578). Morford argues strongly against the view that Cicero's Pro Marcello is any kind of antecedent for Pliny's speech to Trajan--and, certainly, there are substantial differences. At the same time, I wonder if it might be helpful to explore the effect of these resonances on a listener in more detail. Even if the rhetorical situations are different, the Ciceronian echoes would have been unmistakeable. What did it mean to Trajan, but especially to the senatorial elite, that Pliny's speech was something like Cicero's? [sidenote: interesting point of Morford that most Roman laudationes were eulogies or praise given to a tyrant demanding it, p. 583-4].
The published version that survives for us is as much as three times as long as the original speech; and Pliny gives us details about the editing of the Panegyricus in three of his Epistles (3.13, 3.18, and 6.27). Pliny's framing of the Panegyricus in these Epistles is important, not least because it reminds us that he delivered versions of the speech on two separate occasions: to Trajan in the curia; and to his senatorial amici, over the course of a long three days, at some later point. Pliny saw his Panegyricus as a kind of generic experiment--Richard Flower coined the apt term "protreptic panegyric" to describe the rather prescriptive nature of Pliny's text. It's not without praise for Trajan, but it is very much intended to provide Trajan a framework for making political decisions. As such, it is intended to show the return of a kind of political oratory. The vim and vigor of Cicero is absent, but it is at least not the abject flattery that Domitian demanded from public speeches. Morford quotes Syme, who observed that "the speech is not merely an encomium of Trajan--it is a kind of senatorial manifesto in favour of constitutional monarchy" (577).
Pliny and his senatorial peers understand, finally, that the republic is dead and gone; it is not to be resurrected. Realism has set in, but not acceptance of the senate's utter uselessness. Neither Tacitus nor Pliny want to go back to the Republic. Instead, they want to define a productive role for the senate under a good princeps. One of the challenges for Pliny was maneuvering within a highly stylized genre, avoiding flattery (adulatio) or stubborness (contumacia). Pliny needed to be able to praise Trajan, but in such a way that was credible and that also delivered a careful political message about the ideal relationship between the senate and the princeps.
Libertas, in the principate, then becomes something like praise offered without compulsion. "The central political theme of the Panegyricus is the relationship between the princeps and the Senate, which defines libertas" (584). Furthermore, says Morford, "Pliny, like Tacitus, did not choose the noble but politically ineffectual path of comtumacia leading to martyrdom" (584). Seneca's De Clementia is the first serious effort to define libertas under the Principate; and, specifically, the relationship between the senate and the emperor. Ultimately, Seneca failed and was left to the solutions of otium and withdrawal. Pliny (and Tacitus) are trying, once again, to find a pragmatic solution, one that works with good and bad principes alike. In the end, even with a good princeps, the relationship between emperor and senate was one of inequality. But there were ways in which the powers and status of the senate could be significantly improved if working cooperatively with a good princeps.
One of the interesting features of the Lex de imperio Vespasiani is the extent to which it defines even the princeps as subordinate to law. This is reminiscent of Livy's long discourse about the role of law in the republic, and the extent to which the law is fair and blind. Of course, in reality, the emperor could act solutus legibus; but, if he did so, he was expected to do it carefully and sensitively. What mattered was the emperor's willingness to give off the impression that he, like the senate and the citizenry, was subject to law. Morford suggests that Trajan's relationship to law is central to Pliny's definition of libertas. Trajan's third consulship, held during the first two months of 100 CE, is a topic of some importance for Pliny. He concludes his lengthy discussion of it by comparing Trajan to Jupiter (587; cf this assimilation on Trajan's coins; attic of the Arch of Beneventum).
In his discussion on Trajan as consul, Pliny emphasizes the emperor's collegiality and civilitas. His attendance at his renuntiatio is evidence of his moderatio and sanctitas. Pliny acknowledges that the ceremony itself was merely symbolic, a simulatio civitatis liberae. Pliny articulates in this section of his Panegyricus the distinction between a dominus and a princeps: "A dominus orders the renuntiatio of his election...but a constitutional princeps orders his fellow senators to act as free citizens (589). Morford goes on to observe, "[Trajan's] moderatio is reciprocated by senatorial obsqeuium, which is a virtue if joined to vigor et industria and exercised ex usu rei publicae "(590). In other words, it all hangs together if every participant knows and plays his role. Both sides have to cooperate. A good example of this cooperation happens to come from Trajan's third consulship, the trial of Marius Priscus. The trial of Priscus demonstrates what well-practiced libertas looks like in the principate. It's not traditional republican libertas, but it is preferable to the confrontations that resulted in the deaths of the Stoics under Domitian.