¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 22.2 Isdem consulibus gymnasium ictu fulminis conflagravit effigiesque in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta. et motu terrae celebre Campaniae oppidum Pompei magna ex parte proruit; defunctaque virgo Vestalis Laelia, in cuius locum Cornelia ex familia Cossorum capta est.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 We are still in AD 62, but Tacitus now looks back and reviews the omina and prodigia – strange natural occurrences that indicated the displeasure of the gods – that had happened over the course of this year. This is a regular feature of his narrative and serves a variety of purposes. (i) To begin with, it is a key generic marker of annalistic historiography, in terms of both content and form. The Romans themselves traced the beginnings of the practice of writing year-by-year chronicles to the custom of the pontifex maximus recording on a board (tabula) kept on display outside his place of residence (a) the names of the high magistrates and (b) key events of public significance, not least those of a religious nature such as prodigies, on a yearly basis. The recording started from scratch each year, but the priesthood of the pontiffs also archived the information thus collected. Some – but by no means all – historiographers of the Roman republic adopted an approach and style to the writing of history that mimicked the information displayed on the board of the high priest, presumably in part to endow their narratives with the official and/ or religious authority of a national chronicle. (ii) A key element of annalistic historiography is the repeated reference to consuls – as such, it is an inherently republican form of thinking about history and recalls a period in which the consuls were the highest magistrate in the Roman commonwealth (and the city-state scale of Rome could be governed by yearly flights of officials); annalistic historiography thus stands in latent tension to the existence of a princeps (as well as a worldwide empire). (iii) In addition to the names of magistrates, annals tended to note down anything that concerned the interaction between Rome’s civic community and the gods. Prodigies are divine signs, and their recording situates the narrative within a supernatural context.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 ‘Tacitus and religion’ is a complex topic that defies exhaustive discussion in the present context. What follows are some pointers for how Tacitus integrates the sphere of the divine into his narrative universe. Griffin, for instance, identifies four supernatural forces to which Tacitus appeals in his narrative to render events intelligible: (i) divine intervention; (ii) fate, in the Stoic sense of an unalterable chain of natural causes; (iii) destiny, as determined by the time of our birth, i.e. by the stars; (iv) ‘fortune’ or ‘chance.’ Not all of these factors are mutually reconcilable from a theological point of view. More generally speaking, Tacitus’ narrative universe offers a fractured metaphysics: he brings into play mutually incompatible conceptions of the gods, invokes their power and presence in various ways, but only to turn a narrative corner and lament their inefficaciousness. Here is a look at some representative passages that are particularly pertinent for an appreciation of 15.23. To begin with, it is important to stress that Tacitus recognizes the gods as a force in history that strikes emperors and senators alike. See, for instance, Annals 14.22.4:
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Isdem diebus nimia luxus cupido infamiam et periculum Neroni tulit, quia fontem aquae Marciae ad urbem deductae nando incesserat; videbaturque potus sacros et caerimoniam loci corpore loto polluisse. secutaque anceps valetudo iram deum adfirmavit.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [About the same date, Nero’s excessive desire for extravagance brought him disrepute and danger: he had entered in the spring of the stream that Quintus Marcius conveyed to Rome to swim; and by bathing his body he seemed to have polluted the sacred waters and the holiness of the site. The grave illness that followed confirmed the wrath of the gods.]
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The gods, then, go beyond sending signs of warning. They cause havoc, and not only for the princeps. In the wake of the conspiracy of Piso, the wrath of the gods somehow encompasses all of Roman society. Annals 16.13.1–2 is particularly striking because it conflates divine anger with the savagery of the princeps:
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Tot facinoribus foedum annum etiam di tempestatibus et morbis insignivere. vastata Campania turbine ventorum, qui villas arbusta fruges passim disiecit pertulitque violentiam ad vicina urbi; in qua omne mortalium genus vis pestilentiae depopulabatur, nulla caeli intemperie quae occurreret oculis. sed domus corporibus exanimis, itinera funeribus complebantur; non sexus, non aetas periculo vacua; servitia perinde et ingenua plebes raptim extingui, inter coniugum et liberorum lamenta, qui dum adsident, dum deflent, saepe eodem rogo cremabantur. equitum senatorumque interitus, quamvis promisci, minus flebiles erant, tamquam communi mortalitate saevitiam principis praevenirent.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 [Upon this year, disgraced by so many shameful deeds, the gods also imposed their mark through violent storms and epidemics. Campania was laid waste by a whirlwind, which wrecked the farms, the fruit trees, and the crops far and wide and carried its violence to the vicinity of the capital, where the force of a deadly disease decimated the human population at all levels of society, even though there was no visible sign of unwholesome weather conditions. But the houses were filled with lifeless bodies, the streets with funerals. Neither sex nor age gave immunity from danger; slaves and the free-born population alike died like flies, amid the laments of their wives and children, who, while tending (to the ill) and mourning (the deceased), (became infected, died, and) often were burnt on the same pyre. The deaths of knights and senators, while likewise indiscriminate, gave less rise to lamentation, since it appeared as if they were cheating the savagery of the emperor by undergoing the common lot.]
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 And soon afterwards, Tacitus steps back from his account of the bloodshed caused by Nero to reflect on his narrative and the impact it may have on the reader – before invoking the larger supernatural horizon in which imperial history and its recording in Tacitus’ text has unfolded (Annals 16.16.2):
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 [It was that wrath of divine forces against the Roman state, which one cannot, as in the case of beaten armies or captured towns, mention once and for all and then move on.]
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 What these passages illustrate is the uncertainty principle. In some cases, divine retribution for an act of transgression is virtually instantaneous: witness the illness that befell Nero shortly after his inadvisable swim. In other cases, the gap in time between portent and the advent of doom is disconcertingly long: one could have supposed that the melting down of Nero’s statue heralded his imminent demise – but at the point in time his end was still four years in the coming. Too big a gap generates disbelief in the efficacy of prodigies – and the gods. Tacitus himself draws attention to this problem at Annals 14.12.1–2, in the wake of the alleged conspiracy of Agrippina against Nero that ended in her death (the passage also includes an early appearance of Thrasea Paetus):
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Miro tamen certamine procerum decernuntur supplicationes apud omnia pulvinaria, utque quinquatrus, quibus apertae insidiae essent, ludis annuis celebrarentur, aureum Minervae simulacrum in curia et iuxta principis imago statuerentur, dies natalis Agrippinae inter nefastos esset. Thrasea Paetus silentio vel brevi adsensu priores adulationes transmittere solitus exiit tum senatu, ac sibi causam periculi fecit, ceteris libertatis initium non praebuit. prodigia quoque crebra et inrita intercessere: anguem enixa mulier, et alia in concubitu mariti fulmine exanimata; iam sol repente obscuratus et tactae de caelo quattuordecim urbis regiones. quae adeo sine cura deum eveniebant, ut multos postea annos Nero imperium et scelera continuaverit.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 [However, with a remarkable spirit of emulation among the leading men thanksgivings were decreed at all shrines, further that the festival of Minerva, at which the assassination attempt was discovered, be celebrated by annual games, that a golden statue of Minerva and next to it an effigy of the emperor be put up in the curia, and that Agrippina’s birthday be included among the inauspicious dates. This time, Thrasea Paetus, who was wont to let earlier instances of flattery pass either in silence or with a curt assent, walked out of the senate, creating a source of danger for himself, without opening up a gateway to freedom for the others. Portents, too, appeared, frequent and futile: a woman gave birth to a snake, another was killed by a thunderbolt during intercourse with her husband; the sun, again, was suddenly eclipsed and the fourteen regions of the capital were struck by lightning. These events happened so utterly without any concern of the gods that Nero continued his reign and his crimes for many years to come.]
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Tacitus here mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy of the religious adulation that the emperor attracted: in spite of the fact that the son murdered his mother, emperor and senators engage in communal thanksgiving to the gods that the mother did not manage to murder her son. Given this perversion of the truth and the way that the divinities are implicated in the crime (as the agents who supposedly helped to uncover Agrippina’s plot), the numerous signs of divine displeasure do not come as a surprise. Yet Tacitus goes on to dismiss the prodigia as ineffectual because the warning they supposedly constituted resulted neither in a change of behaviour and ritual amendment to avert the apparently imminent danger nor in supernatural punishment of the real criminal, the emperor. The fact that Nero kept on living a life of crime for years to come suggests to Tacitus that the apparent portents lacked divine purpose. Moreover, as the passage from Annals 16 that we just cited illustrates, before Nero gets his comeuppance he visits Roman society like a wrathful divinity himself. Ultimately, divine efficacy in Roman history has become inscrutable and unpredictable. The world that Tacitus records eludes easy understanding. Some aspects of it are both re-prehensible and incom-prehensible. Communication at all levels is seriously distorted. No one’s listening to sage correctives in the senate-house (from our Saint Thrasea), and no one’s listening to alarm-bells set off by that other throwback voice looking out for Rome – heaven-sent scary stuff.]
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 gymnasium ictu fulminis conflagravit effigiesque in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta: For the Neronia, a quinquennial festival along the model of the Greek Olympic Games first celebrated in AD 60 (Tacitus covers it at Annals 14.20–21, which we cite and discuss below), Nero had built the first public gymnasium in Rome. Tacitus mentions its dedication at the very end of his account of AD 61 (14.47): gymnasium eo anno dedicatum a Nerone praebitumque oleum equiti ac senatui Graeca facilitate (‘In the course of the year, Nero consecrated a gymnasium, oil being supplied to the equestrian and senatorial orders – a Greek form of liberality’). The slippage from AD 60 to AD 61 merits some comments. Griffin uses Ann. 14.47 as evidence that ‘in 61 he [sc. Nero] dedicated his new public baths in Rome, a complex that included a gymnasium. He marked the occasion by a free distribution of oil to senators and equites, who were clearly meant to be attracted to athletics by the free offer’ – but acknowledges in an endnote that our other sources have the gymnasium, and in the case of Suetonius, also the baths, dedicated and in use during the Neronia in AD 60. To fix the clash, she suggests that ‘it is possible that Tacitus’ date refers to the dedication of the whole complex, the gymnasium alone being finished by the Neronia.’ But this is hardly compelling given that Tacitus, unlike Suetonius, does not even mention the baths at 14.47: he only speaks of the dedication of the gymnasium. Perhaps something else entirely is going on: could Tacitus have slyly shifted the date of the dedication of the gymnasium back a year so that he could correlate the endings of his accounts of AD 61 (14.47) and AD 62 (15.22)? Has the desire for a suggestive artistic design here overruled the principle of chronological accuracy?
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 The term gymnasium itself, at any rate, is a loanword from the Greek (γυµνάσιον/ gymnasion, a place where one stripped to train ‘naked’, or γυµνός/ gymnos in Greek). As the name suggests, it was a quintessentially Greek institution – a place for athletic exercise (in particular wrestling), communal bathing, and other leisure pursuits (such as philosophy). Our sources suggest that Nero himself fancied a career as a wrestler – linked to his sponsorship of gymnasia: ‘his interest in pursuing a somewhat less dangerous career [than fighting as a gladiator] in wrestling is well attested. He certainly built gymnasia at Rome, Baiae, and Naples; wrestlers competed at his Neronia; he enjoyed watching them in Naples; and he actually employed court wrestlers, luctatores auli. Contemporary rumor had it that he intended himself to compete in the next Olympic Games among the athletes, for he wrestled constantly and watched gymnastic contests throughout Greece…’
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Tacitus mentions the occurrence without commentary, but there was little need for one. In part, the structure of his narrative provides an eloquent interpretation: it is hardly coincidental that he should have concluded his account of AD 61 with the dedication of the gymnasium by Nero and his account of AD 62 with instances of divine wrath directed against the building and the statue of the emperor contained therein. The artful design that ensues stands out even more clearly if we recall that the mention of Nero’s dedication of the gymnasium comes right after the obituary for Memmius Regulus (consul of 31) and that the paragraph that follows the meltdown of the statue begins with the consulship of his son (also named Memmius Regulus). Tacitus thus chiastically interrelates the end of 61, the end of 62, and the beginning of 63:
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Tacitus thus twins the abomination and disaster of the imperial court – Nero is the last scion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty – with an image of continuity in the form of republican lineage.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 effigiesque in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta: Statues of emperors (and other members of the imperial family or household) were ubiquitous in imperial Rome. They ensured the visual presence of the princeps in a wide variety of settings, raised the represented figure above the status of ordinary mortals, and more generally constituted an important medium for projecting an image of the reigning princeps to different social groups within the empire: ‘Representations of Roman emperors and empresses crafted in marble or bronze functioned as surrogates for real imperial bodies, artistic evocations of the imperial presence that were replicated and disseminated everywhere in the Empire. Just as the corporeal being of the emperor, as supreme ruler of the Mediterranean, was endowed with his divine essence or genius, and came to be elevated conceptually above the bodies of his subjects, so too imperial images were conceived differently from those of private individuals. Unlike most of their subjects, the emperor or empress could exist as effigies in multiple bodies that took the form of portrait statues populating every kind of Roman environment such as fora, basilicae, temples, baths, military camps and houses.’ The quotation comes from an article with the title ‘Execution in Effigy: Severed Heads and Decapitated Statues in Imperial Rome’, which focuses on the destruction of statuary after the death of an emperor. New principes, especially if they belonged to a different dynasty, tended systematically to do away with the artistic representations of their predecessors. The melting-down of Nero’s likeness constitutes a divine anticipation of the iconoclasm that lay in store for his images upon his death. Divine displeasure at the Hellenizing shenanigans of the emperor could not have been articulated more clearly. There is no better way to portend Nero’s sticky end than the complete destruction of the statue. One captures a sense of satisfaction in the extreme formulation ad informe aes – Tacitus clearly enjoys the image of golden-boy Nero’s statue being melted down into a shapeless lump as a result of the conflagration. The lightning bolt is the hallmark of Jupiter: so this message comes from the top.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 et motu terrae celebre Campaniae oppidum Pompei magna ex parte proruit: Pompe(i)i, ~orum is a second declension masculine plural noun, here standing in apposition to celebre Campaniae oppidum, the subject of the sentence. This earthquake, which Seneca, in his Natural Histories 6.1.2, dates to AD 63, predated the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 during the reign of Titus, which totally destroyed Pompeii and the neighbouring city of Herculaneum. Hence there is a proleptic point in magna ex parte: Tacitus and his readers would of course have read this passage with the later catastrophe in mind, turning the earthquake mentioned here into an ominous prefiguration of greater evil to come, though not specifically related to the reign of Nero (but easily relatable to the imminent fall of the first dynasty of Caesars). Seismic activity has natural causes but frequently features the same temporal logic as prodigies, insofar as a minor tremor or eruption – at times many years in advance – is then followed by a cataclysmic outbreak. Likewise, prodigies constituted a preliminary indication of divine displeasure that issued a warning of an imminent disaster (but also afforded a precious window of opportunity to make amends, appease the gods, and thus avert it). The Romans understood extreme natural events as divinely motivated signs, but were unaware of – or refused to believe in – the ineluctability of natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions; they preferred to invest in the conviction that proper communication with the gods constituted some safeguard against crises and chaos. But is that so different from contemporary religious creeds?
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 defunctaque virgo Vestalis Laelia: The Vestal Virgins (six at any one time, who, upon entering the college, took a vow of chastity and stayed in position for thirty years or until they died) were priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. Devoted in the main to the cultivation of the sacred fire, which was not supposed to go out since it symbolized the eternity of the Roman state, they were associated with the well-being of the Roman commonwealth and its continuity in time. Any change in personnel owing to a premature death or other event affecting the smooth functioning of the college therefore amounted to an affair of state. Laelia was perhaps the daughter of D. Laelius Balbus.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 in cuius locum Cornelia ex familia Cossorum capta est: Candidates for the priesthood, girls between 6 and 12 years of age, were offered by their families for the honour. When they were selected by the chief priest (Pontifex Maximus), he said, ‘te, Amata, capio’ (I take you, beloved one): this is the reason for the verb here. The Cornelia in question might have been the daughter of Cornelius Cossus, one of the consuls of AD 60. Tacitus’ readers would know her gruesome destiny. In AD 91, when she had become Vestalis maxima, the emperor Domitian had her accused of incestum (‘sexual impurity and hence profanation of the religious rites’). She was found guilty and, despite pleading her innocence, executed by being buried alive. See Suetonius, Domitian 8.4 and the harrowing account by Pliny, Letters 4.11.6–13.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The Cornelii Cossi went all the way back to the 5th century BC, i.e. the early years of republican Rome. A member of this branch of the gens Cornelia, Aulus Cornelius Cossus, was the second one of just three Roman generals ever who won the so-called spolia opima (‘rich spoils’) – the armour stripped from an opposing general after he had been killed in single combat (in Cossus’ case the king of the Etruscan town Veii, Lars Tolumnius: see Livy 4.17–20 for the details). Reflect, before reading on, that the sacred institution of the Vestal priesthood (with its impeccable republican pedigree and personnel) provided for the replenishment of its stock of girls in case of loss: you won’t find monarchy coping half so smoothly with the perils menacing its self-perpetuation. Now read on:
Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0
For instance: in a Stoic universe, in which everything unfolds according to a predetermined chain of natural causes, gods lose their independent agency and ‘chance’ has no place. (It is therefore important to note that the passage where he seems to allude to Stoic fate is very obscure: see Martin (2001) 148–49, cited by Griffin (2009) 168 n. 2, who also points out that Tacitus does not always use fatum in the technical Stoic sense of the term.)