John S McHugh, Sejanus Regent of Rome (Pen & Sword, 2020)
His name is synonymous with burning ambition; a man who had enough but wanted it all. At his peak, Sejanus’s power rivalled that of the Roman Emperor, but he overstepped (don’t they always?) and died a traitor’s ignominious death. Along the way, he fundamentally changed Roman history and political culture. John S McHugh brings us Sejanus’s story and attempts to solve the mysteries that still surround him.
Sejanus was born into an influential, though not noble, family during the fiery death of the Roman Republic in 20 BCE. He began his army career as a young man, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps as one of the Emperor’s Praetorian Prefects, which he duly achieved after climbing the military ladder. He had done so through patronage and exercising his ambition, but Sejanus was also charismatic and energetic and politically astute. Sejanus was now near the centre of power but that only stoked the fires of his ambition. He watched and learned how power worked, becoming the Emperor Tiberius’s right-hand man in the process. When Tiberius removed himself from Rome, Sejanus filled the void as a regent. He now controlled Rome through fear and patronage while keeping Tiberius ill-informed as to events in his capital. Then Sejanus fell, sharply, as tyrants do; Tiberius finally wise to Sejanus’s power-grab. The man who would be Emperor was imprisoned, garrotted, and his corpse defiled, though he suffered his fate bravely. A six-year terror followed against Sejanus’s supporters, real and imagined, fuelled by Tiberius’s vindictiveness and spurred on by his new Praetorian Prefect, Macro. It ended only when Tiberius died. McHugh concludes on a sympathetic note for Sejanus who he sees as little different from those who came after, though Sejanus set the precedent.
The sources for Sejanus are patchy at best, but McHugh picks his way through them with care – his handling of the ‘murder’ of Drusus is an excellent example of this. That might not make for the most enjoyable reading experience at times, but it is necessary and provides great insight into the pitfalls and rewards of studying ancient history. McHugh’s draws the reader in with his clear narrative of events and descriptions of the major players in this extended drama, and his placement of Sejanus’s rise and fall in the context of Roman politics is skilfully exposited. Sejanus’s dramatic rise and fall still serves as a morality tale through the centuries, and it is one that McHugh tells well.