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Tacitus, Annals, 15.20-23, 33-45

Mathew Owen
Ingo Gildenhard

2. Introduction

Texte intégral

  • 1 Henderson (1998).
  • 2 Woodman (2004) xxi.

1At the outset of his Annals, which was his last work, published around AD 118, Tacitus states that he wrote sine ira et studio (‘without anger or zeal’), that is, in an objective and dispassionate frame of mind devoted to an uninflected portrayal of historical truth. The announcement is part of his self-fashioning as a muckraker above partisan emotions who chronicles the sad story of early imperial Rome: the decline and fall of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (AD 14–68) in the Annals and the civil war chaos of the year of the four emperors (AD 69) followed by the rise and fall of the Flavian dynasty (AD 69–96) in the (earlier) Histories. But his narrative is far from a blowby-blow account of Roman imperial history, and Tacitus is an author as committed as they come – a literary artist of unsparing originality who fashions his absorbing subject matter into a dark, defiant, and deadpan sensationalist vision of ‘a world in pieces’, which he articulates, indeed enacts, in his idiosyncratic Latinity.1 To read this Latin and to come to terms with its author is not easy: ‘No one else ever wrote Latin like Tacitus, who deserves his reputation as the most difficult of Latin authors.’2

  • 3 We are not trying to compete with general introductions to Tacitus and his works, of which there a (...)

2This introduction is designed to help you get some purchase on Tacitus and his texts.3 We will begin with some basic facts, not least to establish Tacitus as a successful ‘careerist’ within the political system of the principate who rose to the top of imperial government and stayed there even through upheavals at the centre of power and dynastic changes (1). A few comments on the configuration of power in imperial Rome follow, with a focus on how emperors stabilized and sustained their rule (2). In our survey of Tacitus’ oeuvre, brief remarks on his so-called opera minora (his ‘smaller’ – a better label would be ‘early’ – works) precede more extensive consideration of his two great works of historiography: the Histories and, in particular, the Annals. Here issues of genre – of the interrelation of content and form – will be to the fore (3). We then look at some of the more distinctive features of Tacitus’ prose style, with the aim of illustrating how he deploys language as an instrument of thought (4). The final two sections are dedicated to the two principal figures of the set text: the emperor Nero (and his propensity for murder and spectacle) (5); and the senator Thrasea Paetus, who belonged to the so-called ‘Stoic opposition’ (6). None of the sections offers anything close to an exhaustive discussion of the respective topic: all we can hope to provide are some pointers on how to think with (and against) Tacitus and the material you will encounter in the set text.

2.1 Tacitus: life and career

  • 4 This paragraph is based on Birley (2000) and Martin and Woodman (2012).
  • 5 Birley (2000) 231 n. 4 with reference to Oliver (1977).
  • 6 Birley (2000) 233–34.

3Cornelius Tacitus was born in the early years of Nero’s reign c. AD 56/58, most likely in Narbonese or Cisalpine Gaul (modern southern France or northwestern Italy). He died around AD 118/120.4 His father is generally assumed to have been the Roman knight whom the Elder Pliny (AD 23 – 79) identifies in his Natural History (7.76) as ‘the procurator of Belgica and the two Germanies.’ We do not know for sure that Tacitus’ first name (praenomen) was Publius, though some scholars consider it to be ‘practically certain.’5 His nomen gentile Cornelius may derive from the fact that his non-Roman paternal ancestors received citizenship in late-republican times ‘through the sponsorship of a Roman office-holder called Cornelius.’6 Our knowledge of his life and public career is also rather sketchy, but detailed enough for a basic outline. If we place the information we have or can surmise from his works on an imperial timeline, the following picture emerges:

  • 7 Birley (2000) 234. Tacitus himself records his involvement at Annals 11.11.1: Isdem consulibus lud (...)
  • 8 Woodman (2004) xi.

4Overall, we are looking at an impressive career both in Rome and in provincial government, which he entered at an early age and sustained throughout his life. As Birley notes with respect to one of his earliest appointments: ‘His membership of the XVviri, prestigious enough at any stage in a man’s career, had come early. Often senators did not get into this élite priestly college or one of the other three of equal status until after being consul. Further, in 88 the XVviri had a particularly important role: supervising the Secular Games.’7 Tacitus managed to remain active in public life through several regime changes: he seems to have done equally well under emperors he excoriates in his writings (in particular Domitian) and under emperors he deems worthy of praise (Nerva, Trajan). This raises an interesting, and potentially awkward, question, well articulated by A. J. Woodman: ‘Tacitus’ smooth progression from office to office – and in particular his relatively early acquisition of a major priesthood and his culminating proconsulship of Asia – bespeak of someone who was more than happy to take advantage of the political opportunities which the system had to offer and whose debt to the emperors listed in the preface to the Histories [on which see below] was not inconsiderable. It is thus all the more curious that, as usually interpreted, his treatment of the early empire in the Annals represents a general indictment of the system from which he had derived such personal benefit.’8 Curious indeed. Does Tacitus just indict specific emperors? Or certain dynasties? Or the entire system of the principate? Or only variants thereof? And why? The scholarly verdict is divided...

2.2 Tacitus’ times: the political system of the principate

  • 9 Noreña (2011) 7. His conception of imperial Rome owes much to Paul Veyne (1976) and, in particular (...)

5It is easy to think of Roman emperors as omnipotent rulers who could do (and did) whatever struck their fancy. The truth is more complex – and arguably more interesting (if less sensational). The duration and success of an emperor’s reign depended not least on the way he interacted with a range of individuals and groups, which needed ‘to accept’ him:9

  • 10 The distinction between ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’ Noreña draws here is perhaps unhelpful – since symbo (...)

It would be misleading... to conceptualize the emperor as an omnipotent monarch capable of dominating his far-flung empire. The structural limitations to the practical power of Roman emperors were simply too great. Aristocratic competitors could be very dangerous, especially those in command of legions stationed in the periphery. From such potential pretenders to the throne the threat of usurpation could never be extinguished entirely. Less acute but more constant pressure came from those groups within Roman imperial society that were capable of meaningful collective action in the public sphere. Especially significant were the senate, the plebs urbana of Rome, and the legionary armies. With these influential collectivities the emperor was in constant dialogue, both real and symbolic, interacting with each in a highly prescribed manner calculated to elicit the public displays of consensus, or ‘acceptance’, upon which imperial legitimacy ultimately rested.10

  • 11 The Roman principate was not a hereditary monarchy: the potential for usurpation defined the polit (...)

6In addition to the social groups identified by Noreña, we should recognize the imperial family and the court, its personnel, and its social dynamics as major factors in how power worked during the principate. Relatives with ‘dynastic’ credentials joined ambitious aristocrats as potential pretenders to the throne.11 (Nero kills off in cold blood one such, Junius Torquatus Silanus, in our set text: see Annals 15.35 and Section 5 below.) The daily proximity to the emperor turned female figures of the court (mothers, wives, mistresses) into potential power brokers but also potential victims of imperial whim: Agrippina and Poppaea are prime examples of both in Tacitus’ Nero-narrative. The same is true of the emperor’s closest advisors and high-ranking members of his staff, frequently highly skilled (and highly loyal) freedmen. Senatorial sources tend to look askance at such – from a republican point of view – ‘interlopers’ in the Roman field of power. Neither women nor freedmen shared in political decision-making in republican times, but now could wield greater influence than many a distinguished senator, simply because they had easy access to, and the ear of, the emperor. The same goes for the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, the bodyguard of the emperor and the most significant military presence in the city of Rome.

  • 12 We owe appreciation of this point to discussions with Ulrich Gotter.
  • 13 Annals 16.4–5.

7What made being a Roman emperor so difficult was the fact that each constituency brought a different set of expectations to bear on their princeps:12 the ideal emperor of the army was never going to be the ideal emperor of the senate was never going to be the ideal emperor of the people. Moreover, the groups were in latent rivalry with one another for access to the emperor and for his attention, which caused potential problems in those settings – such as public games – when he interacted with several simultaneously: gestures of special proximity or favour towards the plebs, for instance, might miff the ruling élite (and vice versa). Finally, the groupings themselves were not necessarily homogeneous. At the opening of Annals 16, for instance, Tacitus reports in disgust that the urban plebs reacted to Nero’s public performance as cithara player with enthusiasm and delight, yet goes on to note with grim satisfaction that this (from his point of view) shameful disgrace of imperial dignity scandalized and saddened those common people who had travelled to the city from remote places in the countryside where the values of old Italy were still alive.13

  • 14 Roller (2001) 6.
  • 15 Roller (2001) 11.

8The relation between the emperor and the senatorial ordo, i.e. the politically active members of the élite, was especially fraught, and for various reasons. In comparison with republican times, the aristocracy was particularly affected by the ‘massive and unprecedented relocation of power and authority in the Roman world’ brought about by ‘the advent... of the imperial regime we call the principate.’14 Élite Romans experienced – and had to cope with and negotiate – ‘concrete social and cultural dislocations ... in the face of the emperor’s power – for example, a reduction of the opportunities and rewards for displaying military prowess, and a perceived aggravation of certain problems associated with flattery.’15 They now occupied a paradoxical position in the field of power. On the one hand, they remained rulers of the world: emperor and senators governed the empire together (with the emperor having exclusive control over the army), in close interaction with local élites. (The interaction of centre and periphery is one of the main topics of the first few chapters of the set text.) On the other hand, they were subordinate to the princeps and had to accommodate his existence – not least because the emperor put a cap on senatorial rivalry, preventing the senate from dissolving into suicidal infighting and kicking off civil war. For the Roman aristocracy remained a highly competitive body: senators who pursued a public career vied for prestigious appointments, acted as patrons for others with like ambitions, and desired glory. In contrast to republican times, however, success and effectivness in these roles and undertakings depended in large part on being in favour (or at least not on bad terms) with the emperor – though, as we shall see in Section 6, defying the emperor could also yield a type of fame.

  • 16 See e.g. Lintott (2001–2003) (including discussion of the republican background) and Rutledge (200 (...)
  • 17 Oakley (2012a) 188.
  • 18 Flaig (1992) 123 n. 98.

9The mutual reliance of princeps and ruling élite in governing the empire and the fact that inner-aristocratic competition over posts and honors now inevitably revolved around the figure of the princeps promoted novel forms of behaviour among the senators. Rituals of consensus, in which senators demonstrated their proximity and loyalty to the princeps, became important; senators vied with each other for recognition by the emperor; some tried to get ahead by charging others with disloyalty: the figure of the informer (delator) who broke with group-solidarity and tried to get others charged with treason (maiestas) – an extreme form of aristocratic rivalry to acquire a position of influence close to the princeps – populates Tacitus’ historical narratives;16 others endeavoured to make a name for themselves by pursuing a collision course with the emperor – often much to the chagrin of their senatorial peers (see Section 6 below on Thrasea Paetus). Observers with a literary bent (such as Tacitus or Pliny) are often as scathing about their fellowsenators as they are about the behaviour of specific emperors, evaluating senatorial conduct on a moralizing scale that ranges from servility on the one hand to a defiant embrace of republican libertas on the other: ‘The instances of servile behaviour that Tacitus chronicles are legion, and all readers will have their favourites; any selection that is not copious is false to the tone of his writing.’17 This is for sure an accurate description of what Tacitus does in his narrative, but we shouldn’t assume that his categorical grid of servitus vs. libertas yields an accurate interpretation of senatorial conduct in imperial Rome – however tempting this may be. As Egon Flaig asks, (as he means it) rhetorically: ‘Were the 600 highest ranking persons of an enormous empire of 60-80 million inhabitants really slaves at heart?’18

  • 19 Wallace-Hadrill (1982) 47.

10For members of the senatorial aristocracy, the emperor would ideally conform to the image of the civilis princeps – a ruler in other words who aligned his forms of interaction with the senate according to proto-republican norms and values: freedom of speech; strict limits to adulatio; recognition of the value of republican office which emperor and other aristocrats could hold or aspire to, especially the consulship; investment in a private status – as if an ordinary citizen – in dress and appearance. From an emperor’s point of view, balancing ritual elevation with ritual humility – to be part of the society, not above society – was entirely functional: ‘An emperor whom ritual and ceremonial raised above the level of human society, whose power was represented symbolically as deriving from “outside”, from the gods, owed nothing to the internal structure of the society he ruled. To act, by contrast, as a member of that society, as the peer of its most elevated members, was (symbolically) to associate autocratic power with the social structure. Civility both reinforced the social hierarchy by demonstrating imperial respect for it, and strengthened the autocracy by linking it with the social structure.’19 Not all emperors felt necessarily obliged to try to confirm to this image (their reigns often came to an abrupt end...); and as we shall see in Section 5 below, different emperors had different notions of what ‘civility’ consisted in.

11Consideration of the underlying ‘structure’ of the imperial system also helps to put our sources into perspective – enabling us to read them as highly rhetorical and personally and politically committed views on, rather than entirely accurate representations of, historical realities. Just taking our imperial sources at face value results in the kind of history one gets in the (highly engrossing and actively emetic) BBC-series Horrible Histories, where the ‘Rotten Romans’ feature prominently – and Nero gets the final riff in the ‘Roman Emperor’s Song – Who’s Bad?’, topping the pops against classic competition: the apparently certifiable sociopaths Caligula (emperor 37–41), Elagabalus (218–222), and Commodus (180–192).20 But the composition of literature by members of the ruling élite was never a neutral activity; rather, it was itself implicated in the imperial configuration of power, in the jostling for position, in exercises of self-promotion: Pliny, Tacitus, and Suetonius wrote (mainly) for fellow aristocrats about a shared world dominated by the emperor – and used their works to define their own status, position, and prestige within it.

  • 21 For rehabilitation of Caligula see Winterling (2003/2011); for ‘Nero the Hero’ Champlin (2003). Se (...)

12Rhetorical myth-making is rampant in Roman historical writing. Most notoriously, our sources show an avowed interest in portraying emperors who for one reason or other fell out of favour as mentally deranged. In many a text, early imperial Rome comes across as a society ruled over by lunatics besotted with power and keen to act on every depraved instinct. Tacitus contributed his share to our image of Roman emperors as evil freaks. Over the last few decades, however, scholarship has increasingly started to question this picture, arguing that your favourite salacious anecdote about imperial Rome (such as Caligula appointing his horse to the consulship) may just be too good to be true – and is in fact a distorting rumour put into circulation posthumously by individuals and groups much invested in blackening the reputation of the deceased emperor.21 Could it be that our sources are so hostile to certain emperors not because they were deranged – but that they look deranged because our sources are so hostile?

13This possibility may come as a let-down. But it shouldn’t: critical debunking of historiographical myth-making is in itself an exciting exercise that opens insights into a foreign culture. Fascination shifts from history to the ‘making’ of history, from the allure of alleged facts to the power of historical fabrications. The question as to why these sensationalizing stories have emerged and been able to colonize our imagination so effectively is arguably just as interesting as trying to put an emperor on the psychiatric couch on the basis of insufficient and distorted evidence. What went down in imperial Rome was not just the power of the sword but the power of the word, especially when it came to shaping (or disfiguring) posthumous reputations.

2.3 Tacitus’ oeuvre: opera minora and maiora

  • 22 Syme (1970) 1–2.

14From the very beginning of Roman historiography in the late third century BC political achievement and authoritative prose about historical events or figures had gone hand-in-hand. The composition of historical narratives in a range of genres was very much the domain of senators. As Ronald Syme puts it:22

In the beginning, history was written by senators (first a Fabius, and Cato was the first to use the Latin language); it remained for a long time the monopoly of the governing order; and it kept the firm imprint of its origins ever after. The senator came to his task in mature years, with a proper knowledge of men and government, a sharp and merciless insight. Taking up the pen, he fought again the old battles of Forum and Curia. Exacerbated by failure or not mollified by worldly success, he asserted a personal claim to glory and survival; and, if he wrote in retirement from affairs, it was not always with tranquillity of mind.

  • 23 See Agricola 2, where Tacitus envisions all the pursuits (such as the writing of history) that wer (...)

15It is thus telling that Tacitus’ literary career begins in earnest only after he had reached the pinnacle of public life: the Agricola or De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae appeared in the year after he held the consulship (AD 98). His literary debut also coincided with a major upheaval at the centre of power. AD 96 saw the end of the Flavian dynasty through the assassination of Domitian and the crowning of Nerva as emperor at the age of 65, after years of loyal service under Nero and the Flavians. Pressure from the Praetorian Guard and the army more generally soon compelled Nerva to adopt Trajan as his eventual successor, and Tacitus’ first literary activities fall within this period of transition and change, which he himself marks out as a watershed in politics and culture. In fact, he explicitly links the demise of Domitian (and his oppressive regime) to the renaissance of creative efforts in the literary sphere.23 His writings in and of themselves thus advertise the current system of government as a good one (or at least an improvement over what had come before) and signal Tacitus’ (new) political allegiances. (Much of the bad press that has come down to us on the last Flavian comes from writers in the reign of Trajan – Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius, above all – keen to paint the past in black and the present in white, thereby promoting both the reigning emperors and themselves.)

  • 24 See further Ash (2006) 20 and, for a close reading of the preface, Woodman (2012).

16The Agricola is difficult to classify in generic terms. Prima facie, it is a ‘biography’ of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola; but it also sports striking affinities with various forms of historiographical writing, not least the works of Sallust (the last ‘republican’ historiographer) or, in its year-byyear account of Agricola’s governorship of Britain, annalistic history. It also includes a brief ethnographic excursion on the British (10–12). But arguably the most striking features are the three chapters of prologue (1–3) and epilogue (44–46) that Tacitus devotes almost exclusively to an attack on the principate of Domitian, which had just come to a violent end.24 The historical material, the overall outlook, and the timing of the publication all reek of a republican ethos.

  • 25 There was a sinister side to the treatise’s history of reception as it inspired many a German nati (...)

17Tacitus’ next work builds on the ethnographic pilot paragraphs in the Agricola. His Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum is an ethnographic treatise on the German tribes, which he uses as a mirror to reflect on contemporary Rome.25 Soon thereafter Tacitus published the so-called Dialogus (Dialogus de oratoribus), in which he employed yet another genre (the dialogue) to explore whether or not the quality of public oratory had deteriorated under the principate – a traditional preoccupation going back to Cicero who already diagnosed the rise of autocracy as fatal for high-quality speech in the civic domain owing to a disappearance of freedom of expression. These three works are often labelled Tacitus’ opera minora, his ‘minor works.’ They are all ‘historical’ in one way or another and thus set the stage for the two major pieces of historiography: the Histories and the Annals.

The Histories

  • 26 We cite the text and translation by C. H. Moore in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1 (...)

18The opening paragraph of the Histories contains the most detailed selfpositioning of Tacitus as a writer of history and is worth a detailed look. Already the opening sentence – Initium mihi operis Servius Galba iterum Titus Vinius consules erunt: ‘I begin my work with the second consulship of Servius Galba, when Titus Vinius was his colleague’ – is jaw-dropping. What makes it so, is not so much what’s in it but what isn’t. At the beginning of AD 69, when Tacitus begins his Histories, Galba was not just consul for the second time – he was also emperor! As Nero’s successor he had already been in power since 6 June 68. Tacitus, however, blithely glosses over this not entirely insignificant fact, preferring instead to give a historiographical shout-out to Galba in his role as ‘republican’ high magistrate. This programmatic keynote sets the tone for the rest of the work – and the remainder of the opening paragraph (Histories 1.1):26

nam post conditam urbem octingentos et viginti prioris aevi annos multi auctores rettulerunt, dum res populi Romani memorabantur pari eloquentia ac libertate: postquam bellatum apud Actium atque omnem potentiam ad unum conferri pacis interfuit, magna illa ingenia cessere; simul veritas pluribus modis infracta, primum inscitia rei publicae ut alienae, mox libidine adsentandi aut rursus odio adversus dominantis: ita neutris cura posteritatis inter infensos vel obnoxios. sed ambitionem scriptoris facile averseris, obtrectatio et livor pronis auribus accipiuntur; quippe adulationi foedum crimen servitutis, malignitati falsa species libertatis inest. mihi Galba Otho Vitellius nec beneficio nec iniuria cogniti. dignitatem nostram a Vespasiano inchoatam, a Tito auctam, a Domitiano longius provectam non abnuerim: sed incorruptam fidem professis neque amore quisquam et sine odio dicendus est. quod si vita suppeditet, principatum divi Nervae et imperium Traiani, uberiorem securioremque materiam, senectuti seposui, rara temporum felicitate ubi sentire quae velis et quae sentias dicere licet.
[Many historians have treated of the earlier period of eight hundred and twenty years from the founding of Rome, and while dealing with the Republic they have written with equal eloquence and freedom. But after the battle of Actium, when the interests of peace required that all power should be concentrated in the hands of one man, writers of like ability disappeared; and at the same time historical truth was impaired in many ways: first, because men were ignorant of politics as being not any concern of theirs; later, because of their passionate desire to flatter; or again, because of their hatred of their masters. So between the hostility of the one class and the servility of the other, posterity was disregarded. But while men quickly turn from a historian who curries favour, they listen with ready ears to calumny and spite; for flattery is subject to the shameful charge of servility, but malignity makes a false show of independence. In my own case I had no acquaintance with Galba, Otho, or Vitellius, through either kindness or injury at their hands. I cannot deny that my political career owed its beginning to Vespasian; that Titus advanced it; and that Domitian carried it further; but those who profess inviolable fidelity to truth must write of no man with affection or with hatred. Yet if my life were to last, I have reserved for my old age the history of the deified Nerva’s reign and of Trajan’s rule, a richer and less perilous subject, because of the rare good fortune of an age in which we may feel what we wish and may say what we feel.]

19Tacitus here takes us on a flash journey through Roman history, from the foundations of Rome way back when down to his own times, with Actium and Augustus, AD 69 (the year of the four emperors), and the Flavian dynasty as major pit stops. Onto this chronological skeleton, Tacitus hangs systematic comments on the (changing) political regimes, which he matches to the (changing) outlook of Latin historiography. His basic thesis of an inextricable link between the political environment and the quality of writing it sponsors raises some awkward questions about his own literary efforts. Tacitus confronts this challenge head-on by scripting a mini-autobiography into his opening salvo that outlines his political career and his approach to historical writing. If we extrapolate the information Tacitus has packed into his opening paragraph and present it in the form of a table we get the following:

* Unlike the opening of the Annals (for which see below), Tacitus here glosses over the fact that initially Rome was ruled by kings, in the process playing down the traditional assumption that primeval monarchy was simply ‘natural’.

20In his history of Rome and Roman historiography, Tacitus posits two key watersheds: 31 BC and AD 96. This generates a tripartite scheme. In republican times, the political set-up produced and enabled outstanding authors. By contrast, the period from Actium until the death of Domitian, dominated as it was by the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, was not conducive to literary talents: contemporary accounts are marred by various flaws to do with the wider political milieu. With the rise to power of a new type of princeps committed to republican norms in the wake of Domitian, could historiography, too, regain its former heights and produce an account of the previous epoch that avoids the inevitable deficiencies of contemporary voices? Without being too explicit about it, Tacitus seems to be answering this question in the affirmative: only now, under Trajan, so he seems to be saying, has the time come for writing the history of the earlier emperors, thereby advertising the job he is minded to take on himself.

21Tacitus approaches his task in inverse chronological order: in the Histories, he revisits the year of the four emperors and the rise and fall of the Flavian dynasty (AD 69 –96); in the subsequent Annals, he covers the period from the death of the first to the death of the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, that is, Augustus to Nero.

The Annals

22As in the Histories, Tacitus uses the opening sentence of the Annals for a grand sweep through Roman history from the very beginning down to imperial times (Annals 1.1):

Urbem Romam a principio reges habuere; libertatem et consulatum L. Brutus instituit. dictaturae ad tempus sumebantur; neque decemviralis potestas ultra biennium, neque tribunorum militum consulare ius diu valuit. non Cinnae, non Sullae longa dominatio; et Pompei Crassique potentia cito in Caesarem, Lepidi atque Antonii arma in Augustum cessere, qui cuncta discordiis civilibus fessa nomine principis sub imperium accepit. sed veteris populi Romani prospera vel adversa claris scriptoribus memorata sunt; temporibusque Augusti dicendis non defuere decora ingenia, donec gliscente adulatione deterrerentur. Tiberii Gaique et Claudii ac Neronis res florentibus ipsis ob metum falsae, postquam occiderant, recentibus odiis compositae sunt. inde consilium mihi pauca de Augusto et extrema tradere, mox Tiberii principatum et cetera, sine ira et studio, quorum causas procul habeo.
[Rome at the outset was a city state under the government of kings: liberty and the consulate were institutions of Lucius Brutus. Dictatorships were always a temporary expedient: the decemviral office was dead within two years, nor was the consular authority of the military tribunes long-lived. Neither Cinna nor Sulla created a lasting despotism: Pompey and Crassus quickly forfeited their power to Caesar, and Lepidus and Antony their swords to Augustus, who, under the title ‘princeps’, gathered beneath his empire a world outworn by civil conflicts. But, while the glories and disasters of the old Roman commonwealth have been chronicled by famous writers, and intellects of distinction were not lacking to tell the tale of the Augustan age, until the rising tide of sycophancy deterred them, the histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified through cowardice while they flourished, and composed, when they fell, under the influence of still rankling hatreds. Hence my design, to treat a small part (the concluding one) of Augustus’ reign, then the principate of Tiberius and its sequel, without anger and without partiality, from the motives of which I stand sufficiently removed.]

  • 27 Martin (1981) 104.
  • 28 Much like Livy 43.13.2: meos annales.

23And, as in the Histories, he stakes a claim to superiority over previous accounts: his history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, written in retrospect, surpasses earlier, contemporary sources in veracity by virtue of his dispassionate handling of the subject matter. In the one manuscript that preserved the opening books of the Annals the text is presented under the title Ab excessu divi Augusti. Our conventional label Annals has therefore ‘no ancient authority’, but it is nevertheless ‘a happy choice in that it reminds the reader that Tacitus, most original of Roman historians, wrote within the traditional framework of year-by-year narrative’ (more annalysis on this to come in a moment).27 In fact, at one point Tacitus himself refers to ‘the Annals’ as ‘his annals’ (Annals 4.32.1):28

Pleraque eorum quae rettuli quaeque referam parva forsitan et levia memoratu videri non nescius sum: sed nemo annalis nostros cum scriptura eorum contenderit qui veteres populi Romani res composuere.
[I am not unaware that very many of the events I have reported, and shall report, may perhaps seem little things, trifles too slight for record; but no parallel can be drawn between these annals of mine and the work of the men who composed the affairs of the Roman people of old.]

  • 29 See Gotter and Luraghi (2003).

24What are annals? This type of historiography, which originated in the second centry BC, gets its name from its policy of year-by-year recording (annus = year).29 Notable features include dating of the years with reference to the two high magistrates who entered into office at the beginning of the year (‘when x and y were consuls...’ is the most conspicuous annalistic tag) and attention to signs of interaction between the res publica and the supernatural sphere (such as prodigies). As such, the genre came with certain formal expectations and under the principate carried a potentially built-in political ideology: it was a distinctively republican mode of writing.

  • 30 Woodman (1992).

25Tacitus felt by no means bound to a strictly chronological presentation of his material. There is evidence that he even re-ordered material across yearboundaries – in violation of his own principle suum quaeque in annum referre (4.71: ‘to record each event in its year of occurrence’). And within the year, he operates freely to generate special effects, not least through the striking juxtaposition of distinctive narrative blocks. The set text offers a superb example: Nero’s decision not to proceed with his plan to visit the East and in particular Egypt (15.36) segues seamlessly into an orgy that turns Rome into Egyptian Alexandria (15.37), which is followed abruptly by the Great Fire of Rome (15.38) as if moral chaos entails physical destruction.30 The sequence owes itself to Tacitus’ selection and arrangement of the material, and the order in which he narrates these events hints at – even if it does not expressly articulate – an interpretation of Nero’s world and the historical forces at work therein.

  • 31 Ginsberg (1981) 100: ‘Tacitus has rejected traditional annalistic history, but he has not rejected (...)
  • 32 Griffin (2009) 182: ‘The structure of the Annals as a whole combines an annalistic principle, whic (...)
  • 33 Henderson (1998) 257–58.

26Yet, however much he was free-lancing generically, his commitment to annalistic history remains fundamental to the politics of his prose – and literary originality.31 One could argue that Tacitus generated a new generic hybrid – ‘imperial annals’ – insofar as he superimposed an annalistic structure on imperial history, thereby integrating a republican way of ordering time with another ordering principle, the reigns of individual emperors.32 To write imperial history in annalistic form was a choice that ensured a paradoxical tension in the very make-up of his text. Or, in the words of John Henderson:33

The annalistic form of ‘our Annals’ (4.32) binds the work to the politics of the res publica, consular figureheads leading a yearly change of the guard to link human with solar time. Annals are the voice of the tribune, the censor, the consul, of that Rome, they can speak no other language. It was not possible to write Annals before (in the myth of respublica libera) Brutus expelled the Tarquins. ... What Tacitus documents under the flag of dispassion (so: laments, protests, contemns?) is collapsed into the reigns of emperors, as Livian history of Rome Ab urbe condita is ousted by Tacitean history of the Caesars’ re-foundation Ab excessu divi Augusti.

27Only parts of the Annals, which, on the most plausible reconstruction, originally added up to 18 Books, have survived. Here is what we have (and what we haven’t):

28One conspicuous aspect of the Annals that the table illustrates nicely is a change in policy after the Tiberius-narrative in how Tacitus distributed his material across books. Throughout his account of Tiberius’ reign, a new book coincides with a new year and hence new consuls – in traditionally annalistic fashion. In the Claudius- and Nero-narratives, Tacitus abandons this practice. As a result the beginnings and ends of books – always marked moments – foreground imperial themes. Consider:

  • 34 Spot the odd one out (Annals 13.58): Eodem anno Ruminalem arborem in comitio, quae octingentos et (...)
  • 35 This return to a coincidence of beginning of the year and beginning of the book also receives inst (...)

End of Book 11: execution of Claudius’ wife Messalina
Beginning of Book 12: choice of Agrippina (Nero’s mother) as new wife
End of Book 12: death of Claudius and Nero’s ascent to the throne
Beginning of Book 13: murder of Junius Silanus
End of Book 13: the death – and revival (!) – of the arbor ruminalis, the tree that 830 years ago gave shadow to Romulus and Remus when they were babies34
Beginning of Book 14: Annalistic opening (‘under the consulship of Gaius Vipstanus and C. Fonteius’, i.e. AD 59), followed by the failed and successful murder of Agrippina35
End of Book 14: Exile and murder of Nero’s first wife Octavia; preview of the conspiracy of Piso
Beginning of Book 15: War in the East
End of Book 15: Honours for Nero in the wake of the conspiracy of Piso
Beginning of Book 16: the ‘treasure of Dido’ (a hare-brained idea to solve a financial crisis)

2.4 Tacitus’ style (as an instrument of thought)36

  • 36 Our discussion in this section draws above all on Martin (1981), Henderson (1998), O’Gorman (2000) (...)
  • 37 Woodman (2009b) 14.
  • 38 Goodyear (2012) 369.

29Tacitus is one of the great prose stylists to write in Latin. Indeed, to be able to read him in the original is held by some to be in itself sufficient justification ‘to believe that learning Latin is worthwhile.’37 But readers of Tacitus weaned on Ciceronian Latin are in for a disquieting experience. While it is important to bear in mind F. R. D. Goodyear’s point that Tacitean style is protean (both across his oeuvre and within a single work) and his writings constitute an ‘endless experiment with his medium, the discontent with and reshaping of what had been achieved before, the obsessive restlessness of a stylist never satisfied that he had reached perfection’, it is nevertheless possible to identify some pervasive features that are also amply on display in the set text.38

  1. Where Cicero aims for fullness of expression (copia verborum), the name of Tacitus’ game is brevity (brevitas), not least in how he deploys ellipsis and asyndeton. As Ronald Syme puts it, ‘The omission of words and connectives goes to ruthless extremes for the sake of speed, concentration, and antithesis; and stages in a sequence of thought or action are suppressed, baffling translation (but not hard to understand).’39
  2. Whereas Cicero’s diction tends to be conservative, Tacitus delights in the unusual lexical choice.40
  3. Cicero takes pride in balance and symmetry; Tacitus goes for disjunctive varietas. His ‘studied avoidance of syntactical balance and the pursuit of asymmetry’ is in evidence throughout the set text and noted in the commentary.41
  4. One particular Tacitean technique of throwing syntactical symmetry off-balance is to unsettle ‘the relationship and respective weight of main clauses and subordinate clauses.’42 As Ronald Martin put it: ‘[Tacitus] makes use, far more than any other Latin writer, of sentences in which the main clause is completed early and the centre of gravity is displaced to appended, syntactically subordinate, elements.’43 The first sentence of the set text (15.20.1) is an excellent case in point.
  5. More generally, Cicero and Tacitus differ in their deployment of irony – which advances to something of a master-trope in Tacitus. O’Gorman defines irony as ‘a mode of speaking which establishes an unquantifiable distinction between a statement and “its” meaning’ and adds an important clarification: ‘A crude definition of an ironic statement would define the meaning as opposite to what is said, but it is better to conceive of the meaning of an ironic statement as different from what is said, not exclusively or even necessarily its opposite.’44 She aptly calls on Cicero, who equates irony with dissimulation (de Oratore/ On the Ideal Orator 2.269):45

Urbana etiam dissimulatio est, cum alia dicuntur ac sentias, non illo genere, de quo ante dixi, cum contraria dicas, ut Lamiae Crassus, sed cum toto genere orationis severe ludas, cum aliter sentias ac loquare.
Irony, that is, saying something different from what you think, is also elegant and witty. I don’t mean the kind I mentioned earlier, saying the exact opposite (as Crassus did to Lamia), but being mock-serious in your whole manner of speaking, while thinking something different from what you are saying.

  • 46 O’Gorman (2000) 11.

30As O’Gorman puts it: ‘Irony depends upon the divergence in sense between utterance (quae dicuntur) and the unsaid (quae sentias). But the nature of the unsaid is indeterminable; all we know about it is that it is aliud – other than what is uttered.’46 In the case of irony in Cicero’s orations, however, it is often rather obvious what Cicero thinks, even if it is not what he says: an orator, after all, relies on his eloquence to produce tangible results (a verdict of innocence or guilt, a decision on a matter of policy) and therefore must communicate what he means. Also, for an ironic utterance to be witty, both meanings, the stated and the implied, must resonate simultaneously. In contrast, Tacitus’ use of irony is more opaque. And indeed he often leaves it unstated of what precisely he means – even if we realize that authoritative irony is in play: in his works, irony is not a local phenomenon, applied for special effect – it is an ubiquitous feature of his narrative and authorial voice, the counterpart to his claim to be in ruthless pursuit of the truth. In Cicero, irony is an occasional figure of speech; in Tacitus, it is a pervasive mode of critique.

  • 47 See O’Gorman (2000) 2: ‘The formal structures of Tacitus’ prose embody a politica judgement of the (...)
  • 48 John Henderson, per litteras.

31This leads to a more general consideration: as with his resourceful manipulation of genre, style in Tacitus is a formal instrument of thought – an essential aspect of how he defines his authorial voice. His style ought to be embraced as a means and a medium of political commentary.47 It enacts his interpretation of history: it is as dark, difficult, and fractured as the world in pieces he sets out to describe. If the empire struck, Tacitus strikes back – often with a dark sense of humour, manifesting itself in ‘arch wit, appalled satire, sleazy innuendo, surreal coincidence …’48

  • 49 Henderson (1998) 260–61.

32In part, Tacitus thereby addresses the problem of authenticity. How do you develop an authentic voice on subject matter suffused with fraud and deceit? How do you avoid your own authorial project, your own rhetoric becoming subsumed by the imperial vices you set out to chronicle and expose? One way is to deploy irony to shift and hide. As a result, coming up with the definitive interpretation of Tacitus is a bit like trying to find a stable position in quicksand. Or, as Henderson puts it, ‘he’ll never be caught with his rhetorical trousers down, his work is ironized beyond anything so crude. Instead, his text writes in “anti-language”, held always just beyond reach of secure reading, recuperative comprehension, not a “story” but a deadly serious challenge to think out, re-think and be out-thought by “the consular historian”.’49

2.5 Tacitus’ Nero-narrative: Rocky-Horror-Picture Show and Broadway on the Tiber

33Tacitus’ portrayal of Nero is in some respects more restrained than those of other contemporary sources. Examples from the set text include his selective Taci-turn-ity in reporting Nero’s alleged sex crimes and his judiciously aporetic stance on whether the emperor was responsible for setting Rome afire. But his Nero, too, is a murderous pervert with disgusting inclinations (such as a penchant for Greek culture...) and a prolific contributor to imperial Grand Guignol (as the French call theatre that specializes in naturalistic horror shows) – to begin with, unwittingly so. Here is the first sentence of the Nero-narrative (Annals 13.1.1–2):

Prima novo principatu mors Iunii Silani proconsulis Asiae ignaro Nerone per dolum Agrippinae paratur, non quia ingenii violentia exitium inritaverat, segnis et dominationibus aliis fastiditus, adeo ut C. Caesar pecudem auream eum appellare solitus sit: verum Agrippina fratri eius L. Silano necem molita ultorem metuebat, crebra vulgi fama anteponendum esse vixdum pueritiam egresso Neroni et imperium per scelus adepto virum aetate composita insontem, nobilem et, quod tunc spectaretur, e Caesarum posteris: quippe et Silanus divi Augusti abnepos erat. haec causa necis.
[The first death under the new principate, that of Junius Silanus, proconsul of Asia, was brought to pass, without Nero’s knowledge, by treachery on the part of Agrippina. It was not that he had provoked his doom by violence of temper, lethargic as he was, and so completely disdained by former despotisms that Gaius Caesar [sc. Caligula] usually styled him ‘the golden sheep’; but Agrippina, who had procured the death of his brother Lucius Silanus, feared him as a possible avenger, since it was a generally expressed opinion of the multitude that Nero, barely emerged from boyhood and holding the empire in consequence of a crime, should take second place to a man of settled years, innocent character, and noble family, who – a point to be regarded in those days – was counted among the descendents of the Caesars: for Silanus, like Nero, was the son of a great-grandchild of Augustus. This was the cause of death...]

  • 50 See Annals 1.6.1 (on the beginning of Tiberius’ reign as princeps): primum facinus novi principatu (...)
  • 51 Ann. 13.15–17.
  • 52 Ann. 14.1–9.
  • 53 Ann. 14.60–64; 16.6.
  • 54 Ann. 15.45; 15.60–64.
  • 55 Ann. 16.14–35.

34The imperial principle is evidently in play here: the book doesn’t start with the new year and the new consuls, but with a new series of imperial murders. As such it looks back to the beginning of the Tiberius narrative – and forward to the set text:50 later on in his reign, the grown-up Nero takes care of business himself and kills off another Junius Silanus without the help of his mother (by then herself a murder victim) because he was a potential pretender to the throne, having similar dynastic credentials. The incident is part of the set text: see 15.37. More generally, Tacitus makes it abundantly clear that all of Nero’s reign lives up to its ominous beginnings, as the youthful emperor starts to ring the changes on murder. A (very) selective survey may include reference to his ‘fratricide’, insofar as Nero does away with his stepbrother Britannicus, the son of his predecessor Claudius and third wife Messalina (Agrippina, the mother of Nero, was Claudius’ fourth spouse).51 Matricide follows, the gruesome slaughter of Agrippina.52 Nero’s two wives Octavia and Poppaea Sabina (implicated in the murder of her predecessor) fall victim to, respectively, deliberate and accidental ‘uxoricide’, the latter combined with ‘foeticide’: Poppaea was pregnant at the time when Nero, in a fit of anger, kicked her to death.53 The set text concludes with the unsuccessful attempt at the ‘senicide’ of Seneca, a failure made up for in the wake of the Pisonian conspiracy.54 The surviving portion of the Annals ends with a killing spree (or wave of suicides) that includes the death of Thrasea Paetus.55 In addition, ancient sources – though not necessarily Tacitus – charge Nero with ‘urbicide’, that is, the killing of the city of Rome in the great fire (Ann. 15.38–4, part of the set text).

  • 56 Ann. 15.67.
  • 57 Champlin (2003) 76.

35But Subrius Flavus, one of the conspirators around Piso, singles out not only matricide and arson as his reason for treason, but a third factor of a rather different nature: Nero’s attempt to turn Rome into an ancient variant of Broadway, with the emperor himself getting top billing.56 This was part of a more general embrace of public spectacle moralists like Tacitus considered frivolous and Greek: Nero’s reign is marked by a heavy investment in festivals (including his own, the Neronia); games, not least chariot-races; the whole culture of mousike (including poetry competitions and singing to the lyre); and the building of Greek cultural institutions such as gymnasia. Towards the end of his life, he even took his talents abroad, first to Southern Italy (a step covered in the set text: see 15.33), then with a trip to Greece (AD 66–67, i.e. not covered in the surviving portion of the Annals). Relying on Tacitus and other sources, Ted Champlin argues that ‘Nero’s progression from private to public performance, and from amateur to professional, develops in three distinct stages’ both for music and charioteering:57

  • 58 Suetonius, Nero 49.
  • 59 See Syme (1958) 515–16, in a chapter on ‘Tacitus and the Greeks’.
  • 60 Champlin (2003) 68, with page 286 n. 38 where he defines civilitas, civility, as ‘the ability of t (...)

36The theme runs throughout Tacitus’ Nero-narrative, from 13.3 (where we catch the youthful Nero exercising his singing and charioteering) to, presumably, his death in the lost portion of the Annals. Suetonius reports that Nero’s final words were ‘qualis artifex pereo’ (‘What an artist dies in me!’).58 In Tacitus, an avowed Hellenophobe, Nero’s artistic inclinations receive an exceedingly bad press.59 But once placed in context, matters are not that simple. Ted Champlin has recently challenged the once orthodox view that Nero’s sponsorship of, and participation in, these activities was a total turn-off:60

Despite the moral strictures of the authors who report Nero’s actions, the social context must be seen as an ambiguous one, and public attitudes as deeply ambivalent. Many of his people surely disapproved of their emperor’s games and the damage done to his imperial dignity, but many more just as surely applauded him. His actions sprang from patterns of behavior familiar in contemporary noblemen and approved by ancient precedent, and his people encouraged him. Killing relatives and rivals, real or imaginary, was cold political reality; performing in public may have been a fantasy, but it was one shared by a large part of Roman society. Whether it could be seen as part of the supreme imperial virtue, civilitas, is a matter for debate.

37From this point of view, Nero’s cultivation of his showbiz talents and his desire to turn himself into the biggest star of the imperial entertainment industry were not meant to offend, but to act out one version of the ideal princeps. In part, as Champlin goes on to show, Nero succeeded – which accounts for his enormous popularity with certain segments of the population long after his death. One group he did not manage to win over were certain authors of the Trajanic age (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius), who are largely responsible for fixing Nero’s image in historiography – and thus for posterity (including us...). They are all scathing about Nero’s stage-performances and investment in spectacles as a way of defining his public image. In his Panegyricus, a speech of praise composed for the emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger notes the contrast between Nero’s and Trajan’s style of imperial leadership as follows (46.4–5):

Idem ergo populus ille, aliquando scaenici imperatoris spectator et plausor, nunc in pantomimis quoque aversatur et damnat effeminatas artes, et indecora saeculo studia. ex quo manifestum est principum disciplinam capere etiam vulgus, cum rem si ab uno fiat severissimam fecerint omnes.
[And so the same populace which once watched and applauded the performances of an actor-emperor (sc. Nero) has now even turned against the pantomimes and damns their effeminate art as a pursuit unworthy of our age. This shows that even the vulgar crowd can take a lesson from its rulers, since a reform so sweeping, if once started by an individual, can spread to all.]

2.6 Thrasea Paetus and the so-called ‘Stoic opposition’

  • 61 Martin (1969) 139. See also Syme (1958) II 557.

38The first figure we encounter in the set text is not the emperor Nero but a senator by the name of Thrasea Paetus (or Paetus Thrasea). He had an illustrious political career, rising to the rank of consul in AD 56 (early in Nero’s reign), even though he frequently embarked on a course of collision with the emperor. Within the literary world of the Annals, he is a character of structural significance. His appearances (and absences) are always well-timed and strategic: ‘Though he [sc. Thrasea Paetus] had been suffect consul in A.D. 56, he does not appear on the pages of Tacitus till two years later. Indeed Tacitus carefully controls his appearances to produce a consistent pattern of one who continuously sought, not always without success, to uphold libertas senatoria.’61 One striking example of this policy involves his presence in the first few chapters of the set text (15.20–22), which form the tail end of Tacitus’ account of AD 62. As such, his direct speech here correlates with his appearance (including a direct speech) at the beginning of Tacitus’ account of the same year (14.48–49). These paragraphs cover the trial of Antistius and form a ‘twin’ to 15.20–22. The passage is lengthy, but, quite apart from its structural significance, also offers acute insights into the relationship between senate and emperor and into the character of Thrasea Paetus. It is thus worth citing in full (14.48–49):

(48) P. Mario L. Afinio consulibus Antistius praetor, quem in tribunatu plebis licenter egisse memoravi probrosa adversus principem carmina factitavit vulgavitque celebri convivio, dum apud Ostorium Scapulam epulatur. exim a Cossutiano Capitone, qui nuper senatorium ordinem precibus Tigellini soceri sui receperat, maiestatis delatus est. tum primum revocata ea lex, credebaturque haud perinde exitium Antistio quam imperatori gloriam quaeri, ut condemnatum a senatu intercessione tribunicia morti eximeret. et cum Ostorius nihil audivisse pro testimonio dixisset, adversis testibus creditum; censuitque Iunius Marullus consul designatus adimendam reo praeturam necandumque more maiorum. ceteris inde adsentientibus, Paetus Thrasea, multo cum honore Caesaris et acerrime increpito Antistio, non quidquid nocens reus pati mereretur, id egregio sub principe et nulla necessitate obstricto senatui statuendum disseruit: carnificem et laqueum pridem abolita, et esse poenas legibus constitutas, quibus sine iudicum saevitia et temporum infamia supplicia decernerentur. quin in insula publicatis bonis, quo longius sontem vitam traxisset, eo privatim miseriorem et publicae clementiae maximum exemplum futurum.
(49) Libertas Thraseae servitium aliorum rupit, et postquam discessionem consul permiserat, pedibus in sententiam eius iere, paucis exceptis, in quibus adulatione promptissimus fuit A. Vitellius, optimum quemque iurgio lacessens et respondenti reticens, ut pavida ingenia solent. at consules, perficere decretum senatus non ausi, de consensu scripsere Caesari. ille inter pudorem et iram cunctatus, postremo rescripsit: nulla iniuria provocatum Antistium gravissimas in principem contumelias dixisse; earum ultionem a patribus postulatam, et pro magnitudine delicti poenam statui par fuisse. ceterum se, qui severitatem decernentium impediturus fuerit, moderationem non prohibere: statuerent ut vellent; datam et absolvendi licentiam. his atque talibus recitatis et offensione manifesta, non ideo aut consules mutavere relationem aut Thrasea decessit sententia ceterive quae probaverant deseruere, pars, ne principem obiecisse invidiae viderentur, plures numero tuti, Thrasea sueta firmitudine animi et ne gloria intercideret.
[(48) In the consulate of Publius Marius and Lucius Afinius, the praetor Antistius, whose reckless conduct in his plebeian tribuneship I have already mentioned, composed a number of scandalous verses on the princeps, and made them public at a well-attended banquet of Ostorius Scapula, with whom he was dining. He was thereupon accused of treason by Cossutianus Capito, who, by the intervention of his father-in-law Tigellinus, had lately recovered his senatorial rank. This was the first revival of the statute; and it was believed that what was sought was not so much death for Antistius as glory for the emperor, whose tribunician veto was to snatch him from death after he had been condemned by the senate. Although Ostorius had stated in evidence that he had heard nothing, the witnesses for the prosecution were believed; and the consul designate, Junius Marullus, moved for the accused to be stripped of his praetorship and put to death according to ancient custom. The other senators were approving the motion, when Thrasea Paetus, with a great show of respect for Caesar and a most vigorous attack on Antistius, argued that it did not follow that the penalty a guilty defendant deserved to suffer was the one that ought to be decided upon, under an outstanding princeps and by a senate not fettered by any sort of compulsion. The executioner and the noose had long since been abolished; and there were punishments established by laws under which punitive measures could be decreed without implicating the judges in brutality or the age in infamy. In fact, on an island, with his property confiscated, the longer he dragged out his criminal existence, the deeper would be his personal misery, and he would also furnish an excellent example of public clemency.’
(49) The autonomy of Thrasea broke the servility of others, and, after the consul had authorized a vote, everyone supported his opinion, except a few dissenters, among whom Aulus Vitellius [sc. the future emperor] was the most active sycophant, who levelled his abuse at the very best, and, as is the wont of cowardly natures, lapsed into silence if anyone replied. The consuls, however, not daring to put the senatorial decree into practice, wrote to Caesar about the general consensus of opinion. He, after some vacillation between shame and anger, finally wrote back that ‘Antistius, unprovoked by any injury, had uttered to the most intolerable insults against the princeps. For those insults retribution had been demanded from the senators; and it would have been appropriate to fix a penalty matching the gravity of the offence. Still, as he had in mind to check undue severity in their verdict, he would not interfere with their moderation; they must decide as they wished – they had been given liberty even to acquit.’ These words, and others like it, were read out, and his resentment was plain to see. The consuls, however, did not change the motion on that account; Thrasea did not withdraw his proposal; nor did the remaining members withdraw their support for what they had approved; one part, lest they should seem to have placed the emperor in an invidious position; a majority, because there was safety in their numbers; Thrasea, through his usual firmness of spirit, and a desire not to lose any of his glory.]

39The passage offers excellent insights into the fraught relations between senate and princeps, achieving two things in one: (i) it illustrates some of the (unwritten) social scripts that both parties could follow to ensure more or less smooth interactions on sensitive issues; (ii) and it shows what happens when one stubborn character like Thrasea Paetus refuses to play by the rules. Let’s have a look at the script that everyone tacitly followed before Thrasea’s intervention. It would have involved a death sentence passed by the senators followed by a pardon from the emperor. If this scenario had played itself out, everybody would have benefited. First, the defendant: he would have received a slap on the wrist, but not lost his head. Second, the senate: trials of treason put this body in a difficult position. Irrespective of the merits of the case, their actions in such matters were themselves open to critical scrutiny: mild treatment of the defendant could be interpreted as manifesting latent sympathies with the culprit, whereas (overly) harsh punishment, while being a sign of outraged loyalty, could be interpreted as kow-towing to a tyrant. But when it was understood that senatorial severity was a first step in a dialectic that set the princeps up for an act of mercy, senators had good reasons for leaning towards passing a harsh verdict since they knew it would not be executed – while also pleasing the emperor. Third, the princeps: Nero hoped for a verdict of guilty and a capital sentence as an opportunity to display his mild disposition by pardoning the defendant despite his evident guilt – a scenario in which he would get the best of both worlds: a firm show of senatorial loyalty, plus personal credit for behaving like a civilis princeps.

40Tacitus’ narrative makes it clear that everyone involved played according to this script – until Thrasea Paetus decided to interfere. Then chaos ensued. The senators were put on the spot. As soon as the capital sentence ceases to be unanimous, as soon as alternatives are available, they find themselves in a double bind. Once a milder option is on the table, they lose face if they remain in favour of the death penalty; but voting in favour of the milder proposal – they know – will incur the displeasure of the princeps. The dilemma is rendered more uncomfortable by the fact that individual senators could exploit the opportunity to score points for themselves. In this case, Aulus Vitellius opposed Thrasea Paetus, in the full knowledge of endorsing the alternative favoured by the princeps – and (one assumes) in the hope of being rewarded for this show of loyalty. Viewed like this, what Tacitus calls senatorial servility (servitium) emerges as pragmatism and common sense, and what he calls the independence (libertas) of Thrasea Paetus as a rather irritating act of self-promotion that leaves everybody else worse off.

  • 62 The phrase multo cum honore Caesaris (49) is studiously ambiguous: Caesar could be Nero – or Juliu (...)

41Let’s look at the fall-out: by arguing for a more lenient sentencing by the senate Thrasea Paetus pre-empts the role that Nero expected to play himself. (Reading his speech intertextually with Caesar’s position in the senatorial debate over the fate of the Catilinarian conspirators as reported by Cicero (in his fourth speech against Catiline) and Sallust (in his Bellum Catilinae) heightens the affront: it implies that Paetus is here play-acting as emperor by imitating the founding figure of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.)62 The senate (including the consuls who had proposed the death penalty) are forced to change tack. The princeps is deprived of his opportunity to show mercy and grudgingly concedes what he would have gladly imposed. Aulus Vitellius aggravates the divisions within the senate for personal gain (just like Thrasea). Everyone is insecure and anxious once the princeps has been upset. The episode thus illustrates Tacitus’ earlier critical comment on Thrasea’s adversarial stance towards the princeps, when he notes that Thrasea’s ostentatious departure from a senate-meeting as protest against excessive adulation of the emperor ‘caused danger for himself without initiating freedom for the rest’ (Annals 14.12.1: sibi causam periculi fecit, ceteris libertatis initium non praebuit).

  • 63 Sailor (2008) 20: ‘One telling feature of Tacitus’ treatment of Thrasea and Helvidius, then, is an (...)

42Within the senate, then, Thrasea’s refusal to play along in what was ultimately a carefully orchestrated social drama that enabled senators and emperor to negotiate their positions vis-à-vis one another, was bound to prove divisive: it forced all other senators to adopt a much more exposed stance on the matter. From the point of view of the retrospective historiographer, of course, Thrasea’s intervention was a godsend: it provided Tacitus with the opportunity to assess the character of the senate as a whole and of specific individuals on a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from ‘unscrupulous opportunist’ to ‘servile’ to ‘principled and independent.’ At the same time, it is important to note that Tacitus enables his readers to appreciate how disruptive a figure Thrasea Paetus was. He could, for instance, easily have enhanced Thrasea’s apparent heroism by suppressing the information that Nero planned to pardon the accused in any case: this would have made it much more difficult for his readers to recognize the social script that was playing itself out before Thrasea interfered. Moreover, he identifies Thrasea’s desire for glory as the primary motivating factor behind his intervention. This entails a tension between a principled commitment to republican norms (such as a libertas) and the self-seeking desire to inscribe oneself in the memory of the Roman people (gloria) – at whatever cost.63

  • 64 See Sailor (2008) 17: ‘what gave these men their glamour was their apparent solidarity with the ca (...)

43It is worth linking this discussion to Tacitus’ biography – and authorial preferences. The type of the ‘principled troublemaker’ or, to use a more positive label, ‘martyr of republican libertas’ is a recurrent figure in Tacitus’ oeuvre, with Thrasea Paetus, who was invited to commit suicide under Nero, and his son-in-law Helvidius Priscus, who met the same fate under Vespasian, leading the way. Their seemingly upright conduct and apparent adherence to a set of old-fashioned norms and values, their courage, and defiance to death, make for excellent foils for bad emperors.64 But Tacitus’ own position vis-à-vis this kind of senatorial peer was decidedly ambivalent – and unsurprisingly so. Both he himself and his father-in-law Agricola had stellar careers under ‘bad’ emperors. It is therefore not without interest that Tacitus in the Agricola explicitly contrasts the futile, self-serving desire for immortality through heroic suicide that motivated the martyrs with the commitment to civic duties and service to the res publica that underwrote the public career of his father-in-law (Agricola 42.3–4):

proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris: Domitiani vero natura praeceps in iram, et quo obscurior, eo inrevocabilior, moderatione tamen prudentiaque Agricolae leniebatur, quia non contumacia neque inani iactatione libertatis famam fatumque provocabat. sciant, quibus moris est inlicita mirari, posse etiam sub malis principibus magnos viros esse, obsequiumque ac modestiam, si industria ac vigor adsint, eo laudis excedere, quo plerique per abrupta sed in nullum rei publicae usum ambitiosa morte inclaruerunt.
[It is characteristic of human nature to hate whom you have harmed: but the natural disposition of Domitian, quick to anger, and the more inscrutable the more implacable, was nonetheless mollified by the moderation and circumspection of Agricola, because he was not trying to call forth fame and death with obstinacy and empty boasts of freedom. Let those, whose habit it is to admire what is forbidden, know that even under bad emperors there can be great men; and that obedience and unassuming conduct, as long as they are coupled with effort and initiative, can attain the same degree of praise that many more achieve through perilous courses of action and self- promoting deaths that are of no use to the commonwealth.]

  • 65 Sailor (2008) 29–30.

44In this passage, at least, Tacitus seems to recommend a middle course between suicide and servility, well captured by D. Sailor: ‘a life that bears unmistakable signs of autonomy, signs that suffice for acquiring prestige, but that nonetheless do not lead inevitably to an encounter with the regime’s violence. Being killed by the regime was... the lone incontestable proof that you had not surrendered your autonomy to the princeps’ domination and that you did not recognize the legitimacy of his coercive powers. But there were also alternative “careers” that argued, though less conclusively, for the possibility of both staying alive and securing real distinction for considerable autonomy.’65 And this may explain why his portrayal of figures like Thrasea in his later historiographical works, while overall positive, also hints at the dysfunctional aspects of their personalities.


1 Henderson (1998).

2 Woodman (2004) xxi.

3 We are not trying to compete with general introductions to Tacitus and his works, of which there are plenty. We particularly recommend Ash (2006) and the two recent companions to Tacitus edited by Woodman (2009a) and Pagán (2012). See also, more generally, the companions to (Greek and) Roman historiography edited by Marincola (2007) and Feldherr (2009).

4 This paragraph is based on Birley (2000) and Martin and Woodman (2012).

5 Birley (2000) 231 n. 4 with reference to Oliver (1977).

6 Birley (2000) 233–34.

7 Birley (2000) 234. Tacitus himself records his involvement at Annals 11.11.1: Isdem consulibus ludi saeculares octingentesimo post Romam conditam, quarto et sexagesimo quam Augustus ediderat, spectati sunt. utriusque principis rationes praetermitto, satis narratas libris quibus res imperatoris Domitiani composui. nam is quoque edidit ludos saecularis iisque intentius adfui sacerdotio quindecimvirali praeditus ac tunc praetor; quod non iactantia refero sed quia collegio quindecimvirum antiquitus ea cura et magistratus potissimum exequebantur officia caerimoniarum. [Under the same consulate (= 47 AD), eight hundred years from the foundation of Rome, sixty-four from their presentation by Augustus, came a performance of the Secular Games. The calculations employed by the two princes I omit, as they have been sufficiently explained in the books which I have devoted to the reign of Domitian (= the closing books, now lost, of the Histories). For he too exhibited Secular Games, and, as the holder of a quindecimviral priesthood and as praetor at the time, I followed them with more than usual care: a fact which I recall not in vanity, but because from of old this responsibility has rested with the Fifteen, and because it was to magistrates in especial that the task fell of discharging the duties connected with the religious ceremonies.]

8 Woodman (2004) xi.

9 Noreña (2011) 7. His conception of imperial Rome owes much to Paul Veyne (1976) and, in particular, Egon Flaig (1992) (2010).

10 The distinction between ‘real’ and ‘symbolic’ Noreña draws here is perhaps unhelpful – since symbolic interactions were very real as well. Presumably, though, he means to distinguish between interactions that happened face-to-face or had a material dimension and those that happened via symbolic gestures or other media of communication (coins, religious worship etc.). Some forms of interaction, such as the donative to the soldiers on special occasions, had both a material and a symbolic value.

11 The Roman principate was not a hereditary monarchy: the potential for usurpation defined the political system, even though succession frequently followed dynastic principles. See further Bert Lott (2012).

12 We owe appreciation of this point to discussions with Ulrich Gotter.

13 Annals 16.4–5.

14 Roller (2001) 6.

15 Roller (2001) 11.

16 See e.g. Lintott (2001–2003) (including discussion of the republican background) and Rutledge (2001).

17 Oakley (2012a) 188.

18 Flaig (1992) 123 n. 98.

19 Wallace-Hadrill (1982) 47.

20 For an equivalent in adult entertainment check out History Channel’s Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror.

21 For rehabilitation of Caligula see Winterling (2003/2011); for ‘Nero the Hero’ Champlin (2003). See also Caligula with Mary Beard on BBC2 (available on-line).

22 Syme (1970) 1–2.

23 See Agricola 2, where Tacitus envisions all the pursuits (such as the writing of history) that were traditionally located in aristocratic otium exiled from Rome during the reign of Domitian.

24 See further Ash (2006) 20 and, for a close reading of the preface, Woodman (2012).

25 There was a sinister side to the treatise’s history of reception as it inspired many a German nationalist after it was rediscovered in the Renaissance: see Krebs (2012).

26 We cite the text and translation by C. H. Moore in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 1925).

27 Martin (1981) 104.

28 Much like Livy 43.13.2: meos annales.

29 See Gotter and Luraghi (2003).

30 Woodman (1992).

31 Ginsberg (1981) 100: ‘Tacitus has rejected traditional annalistic history, but he has not rejected its form. There is a good reason. The annalistic form was traditionally associated with the republican past, and Tacitus wanted to evoke that past, if only to deny its application to the present. ... In rejecting traditional annalistic history, Tacitus rejects also an interpretation of history.’

32 Griffin (2009) 182: ‘The structure of the Annals as a whole combines an annalistic principle, which applies to the smaller organisation within each book, and a regnal principle, which groups the books according to the reigns of emperors and which ensures that the reigns of Tiberius and Claudius (and doubtless of Caligula) each close with the end of a book.’ As Griffin goes on to show, the relative dominance of the two principles throughout the narrative varies from emperor to emperor – one of the formal means by which Tacitus generates meaning.

33 Henderson (1998) 257–58.

34 Spot the odd one out (Annals 13.58): Eodem anno Ruminalem arborem in comitio, quae octingentos et triginta ante annos Remi Romulique infantiam texerat, mortuis ramalibus et arescente trunco deminutam prodigii loco habitum est, donec in novos fetus reviresceret (‘In the same year, the Ruminal tree in the Comitium, which 830 years earlier had sheltered Remus and Romulus in their infancy, through the death of its boughs and the withering of its stem reached a stage of decrepitude which was regarded as a portent – until it revived with fresh shoots’). A portent such as the withering of a sacred tree may well have been entered in the annalistic record – but also if it then consumes itself? Is Tacitus pulling our leg here, with an unexpected, yet deconstructive, gesture to a formal device of annalistic writing?

35 This return to a coincidence of beginning of the year and beginning of the book also receives instant and ironic qualification: right after the dating, Tacitus drops the acid remark that the length of his reign (vetustate imperii – a dark-humoured hyperbole that mockingly asserts the dominance of the imperial principle) had finally rendered Nero sufficiently audacious to go through with the long-plotted matricide.

36 Our discussion in this section draws above all on Martin (1981), Henderson (1998), O’Gorman (2000), and Oakley (2009b).

37 Woodman (2009b) 14.

38 Goodyear (2012) 369.

39 Syme (1958) 347.

40 Martin (1981) 214–15.

41 Martin (1981) 220.

42 O’Gorman (2000) 3.

43 Martin (1981) 221.

44 O’Gorman (2000) 11.

45 O’Gorman (2000) 11; we give the translation of J. M. May and J. Wisse, Cicero On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore), New York and Oxford 2001.

46 O’Gorman (2000) 11.

47 See O’Gorman (2000) 2: ‘The formal structures of Tacitus’ prose embody a politica judgement of the principate. Tacitean style can be seen as the manifestation in narrative of a particular historical understanding, one which is integrally linked to a senatorial view of the principate.’

48 John Henderson, per litteras.

49 Henderson (1998) 260–61.

50 See Annals 1.6.1 (on the beginning of Tiberius’ reign as princeps): primum facinus novi principatus fuit Postumi Agrippae caedes (‘The opening crime of the new principate was the murder of Agrippa Postumus’).

51 Ann. 13.15–17.

52 Ann. 14.1–9.

53 Ann. 14.60–64; 16.6.

54 Ann. 15.45; 15.60–64.

55 Ann. 16.14–35.

56 Ann. 15.67.

57 Champlin (2003) 76.

58 Suetonius, Nero 49.

59 See Syme (1958) 515–16, in a chapter on ‘Tacitus and the Greeks’.

60 Champlin (2003) 68, with page 286 n. 38 where he defines civilitas, civility, as ‘the ability of the emperor to act as an ordinary citizen, or at least as an ordinary Roman nobleman.’ See also page 291 n. 85: ‘From the beginning of the reign he had allowed the people to watch him exercise in the Campus Martius; he often declaimed in public; and he had read his own poems not only at home but in the theatre “to such universal joy” that a supplication to the gods was decreed and the poems themselves were inscribed in letters of gold and dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus: Suetonius ii. 2. These were the actions of an affable emperor, the civilis princeps.’

61 Martin (1969) 139. See also Syme (1958) II 557.

62 The phrase multo cum honore Caesaris (49) is studiously ambiguous: Caesar could be Nero – or Julius Caesar.

63 Sailor (2008) 20: ‘One telling feature of Tacitus’ treatment of Thrasea and Helvidius, then, is an understated but perceptible emphasis on their strong interest in glory.’

64 See Sailor (2008) 17: ‘what gave these men their glamour was their apparent solidarity with the cause of senatorial dignity and significance: to show adherence to a set of values shared by their peers, they had held their own lives cheap.’

65 Sailor (2008) 29–30.

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Légende * Unlike the opening of the Annals (for which see below), Tacitus here glosses over the fact that initially Rome was ruled by kings, in the process playing down the traditional assumption that primeval monarchy was simply ‘natural’.
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