Professor of Classics at the University of Florida, Victoria Emma Pagán is a University of Florida Research Foundation Professor for 2014-2016 and a recipient of a Teaching Award in 2010 in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. With over a dozen articles on Latin literature, her research focuses the historians and post-Augustan writers. She has written twin studies for the University of Texas Press: Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History (2004) and Conspiracy Theory in Latin Literature (2012). She is the author of Rome and the Literature of Gardens (London 2006) and A Sallust Reader (Wauconda 2009), and she is the editor of the Blackwell Companion to Tacitus (2012). She is editing the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Tacitus and writing an introduction to Tacitus for I. B. Tauris Publishers. Born and raised in Ravenna, Ohio, Victoria spent a year at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, Rhode Island, before she earned her B.A. in Latin at Kent State University, her M.A. at the University of Michigan, and her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. A member of the Florida Track Club, she resides in Gainesville with her husband, son, and daughter.
Every day we wake to yet another conspiracy theory in the news, and the reasons for this are not so different from those of ancient Rome.
Conspiracy theories create scapegoats. When a devastating fire destroyed the city of Rome, at first the degenerate emperor Nero was blamed for the disaster. But he quickly accused the Christians, who were burned alive for the crime. It was easier to believe that a mass conspiracy had been afoot, than that one man alone could cause such suffering. Long before Nero, worshippers of Bacchus were suspect because of their foreign status, their unfamiliar initiations, and their growing numbers. Threatened by the presence of such an organized community, the Roman Senate apprehended 7,000 men and women; many of them were executed.
Conspiracy theory is also an effective rhetorical strategy. When Cicero prosecuted his first case, he painted the defendant Verres as a conspirator, engaged in numerous plots to steal the wealth of the people of Sicily. Once this image was planted in the juror’s imaginations, any denials were easily construed as further proof of foul play.
Conspiracy theories are so tempting because they offer simple, unified explanations for complex problems deeply embedded in culture. Rather than face the social, economic, and political inequalities at the root of society, citizens readily latch on to conspiracy theories to explain why bad things happen to good people. By recognizing these factors in ancient Rome, we can appreciate the force that conspiracy theory wages in our own current political discourse.