He was a brilliant politician, a brilliant administrator, a man of state and of the people. He was somebody who was meant to govern the Roman Empire. When Augustus died, or was murdered, Tiberius became emperor, as the succession was working then. And immediately the Senate and people of Rome sent him an overall mandate, a carte blanche, saying that to anything he proposed — as the emperor living on the Palatine hill — they would automatically concur and accept. He was already a semi-divinity in their eyes. That had started with the death of Augustus who had been deified…
And I found out what Tiberius’s response had been to the Senate. He sent back a message — because they were very upset that he didn’t respond immediately with a million thanks — that said, ‘I cannot accept this blanket compliance with anything that might come from me on Palatine Hill here. Suppose that I go mad, or mad with power, or corrupt. Suppose there has been a coup in the palace and somebody else is in charge and you don’t know about it. Would you still want the word of the emperor to be automatic law?’
And they sent back word, ‘Yes, Tiberius. You are the law, all power is with you. Everything that you send us will be accepted and then made law.’ Well, he sent it back with the same objections.
They went on and on for about three or four times and he was getting nowhere with the Senate and they were getting above their station which he was quick to remind them: it would be his decision and his decision was no. After all, they lived through despots just before he came to the throne. Did they want that again? And they said, ‘We beg you, great emperor,’ and so on. He realized he was getting nowhere with them and he said, ‘I accept your folly but I can only make one obiter dicta. And that is how eager you are to be slaves.’
That to me is the United States today: eager for slavery.”
Gore Vidal, speaking in response to a prompting about the passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001.
The recent exposure of the Obama administration’s clandestine data collection apparatus, called US-984XN, or PRISM, would have (I’m sure) inspired Vidal — with his characteristic venom and vitriol — to bring up the case of Tiberius one more time. It was one of the anecdotes he reached for most often, and one which should be on our minds today.