(iii) 23.1–4: Start of Tacitus’ account of AD 63: the birth and death of Nero’s daughter by Sabina Poppaea, Claudia Augusta
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Tacitus’ account of the year AD 63 comprises Annals 15.23–32. The set text only includes the initial paragraph (23) and then vaults forward to the start of AD 64 at 15.33. The stretch left out primarily covers – in spectacularly telling contrast – military developments in the Near East. In the meantime, we have a royal birth! A daughter! A dead duck.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 23.1 Memmio Regulo et Verginio Rufo consulibus natam sibi ex Poppaea filiam Nero ultra mortale gaudium accepit appellavitque Augustam dato et Poppaeae eodem cognomento. locus puerperio colonia Antium fuit, ubi ipse generatus erat.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Memmio Regulo et Verginio Rufo consulibus: This is the standard annalistic formula for opening a year, especially in the latter portions of the Annals: ‘Tacitus introduces a new year with various formulae in Annals 1–6, but in the later books his desire for variatio seems to cease: in fact, all extant year-beginnings, except for two [that for AD 58 at 13.34 and that for AD 65 at 15.48], are introduced by a standard ablative absolute of the type x y consulibus.’
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Memmio Regulo: C. Memmius Regulus, the son of P. Memmius Regulus, one of the consuls of 31, who died in 61. Tacitus records the death at 14.47, as his penultimate entry for that year, adding an overall appreciation of the character:
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [The year saw the end of Memmius Regulus, whose authority, firmness, and character had earned him the maximum of glory possible in the shadows cast by imperial greatness. So true was this that Nero, indisposed and surrounded by sycophants predicting the dissolution of the empire, should he go the way of fate, answered that the nation had a resource. To the further inquiry, where that resource was specially to be found, he added: ‘In Memmius Regulus.’ Yet Regulus survived: he was shielded by his quietude of life; he sprang from a recently ennobled family; and his modest fortune aroused no envy.]
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Verginio Rufo: L. Verginius Rufus, a name that points far into the future. He crushed the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex against Nero in AD 67/68. Twice he declined to be hailed emperor. Pliny records the inscription that Rufus chose for his tombstone (6.10.4; 9.19.1): hic situs est Rufus, pulso qui Vindice quondam | imperium adseruit non sibi, sed patriae (‘Here lies Rufus, who once defeated Vindex and protected the imperial power not for himself, but for his country’). He died in 97, during his third consulship, at the ripe old age of 83. Pliny devotes an entire letter to the event, in which he tells us that it was Tacitus himself who delivered the funeral oration as the suffect consul, who took Rufus’ place (2.1.1–6).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The laconic recording of the two consuls for 63 according to annalistic convention point Tacitus’ readers, in the case of Memmius Regulus, back to the recent past (as commemorated by Tacitus in his Annals) and, in the case of Verginius Rufus, forward into the distant future. The text thus evokes both dynastic succession and annalistic sequence as two complementary grids for imposing patterns on historical time:
|Tiberius||[…]31[…]||Memmius Regulus pater|
|54–68||Nero||[…]63[…]||Memmius Regulus filius, Verginius Rufus|
|68–69||Galba, Otho, Vitellius||[…]|
|Nerva||[…]97[…]||Verginius Rufus, Cornelius Tacitus|
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 ‘Imperial history’ has its natural centre of gravity in the reigning princeps. But by opting for an annalistic approach, Tacitus ensures that a pattern of ‘republican history’ remains in place. The very simplicity of associating each year with the name of the consuls in office (whether initially elected or suffect) generates a sense of order and continuity in time more fundamental than the changing dynasties that rule at Rome. Just thinking about the names of the consuls – and in what other years they or their fathers held the consulship (a natural thing to do, from a Roman reader’s point of view) – creates chronological vectors. In this case, the web of associations called into being by the laconic dating device Memmio Regulo et Verginio Rufo consulibus spans all three ‘dynasties’, from the Julio-Claudian through the Flavian and beyond, to Tacitus’ present. There is, then, an ideology built into the annalistic approach to Roman history: emperors come and go; but each year, consuls still enter into their office and maintain (a semblance of) republican continuity. This way of thinking about time existed outside Tacitus’ narrative as well, of course. But through strategic arrangement of his material, our author activates the pattern as a meaningful foil for his imperial history: here it is his obituary of Memmius Regulus pater at 14.47, at the end of his account of 61, which obliquely sets up his son’s entry into the consulship in 63, especially when paired with the references to Nero’s gymnasium (see above). Without this obituary, readers would have had much greater difficulties in associating the son with his father (and his consulship in 31) or in thinking ahead to the death of Verginius Rufus during his third consulship (and the figure who would take his place and deliver the funeral oration). And far less melodrama to savour.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 natam sibi ex Poppaea filiam Nero … accepit: The advanced position of natam, right after the annalistic formula, reinforces the sense of a new beginning also for the imperial household – which Tacitus crushes a few lines later (see below, 23.3: quartum intra mensem defuncta infante). The undramatic record of who held the consulship stands in stark contrast to the triumphs and tragedies of the imperial household. The switch from the names of the two highest magistrates of the Roman state, subordinate in power only to the princeps himself, to the birth of a baby girl destined to pass away after a few months creates a tension between the republican frame or matrix of Tacitus’ narrative and its principal subject matter. The names of the imperial couple Poppaea and Nero in the first sentence about AD 63 instantly counterbalance those of Memmius Regulus and Verginius Rufus and refocus attention from republican office to the doings of the imperial family.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Poppaea: Nero was Poppaea Sabina’s third husband, and she his second wife – after Octavia. She enters the Annals at 13.45 (in his account of the year AD 58) as the wife of the knight Rufrius Crispinus. The paragraph opens programmatically with the sentence non minus insignis eo anno impudicitia magnorum rei publicae malorum initium fecit (‘a no less striking instance of immorality proved in the year the beginning of grave public calamities’) and continues as follows:
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 There was in the capital a certain Poppaea Sabina, daughter of Titus Ollius, though she had taken the name of her maternal grandfather, Poppaeus Sabinus, of distinguished memory, who, with the honours of his consulate and triumphal insignia, outshone her father: for Ollius had fallen a victim to his friendship with Sejanus before holding the major offices. She was a woman possessed of all advantages but good character (huic mulieri cuncta alia fuere praeter honestum animum). For her mother, after eclipsing the beauties of her day, had endowed her alike with her fame and her looks: her wealth was adequate for her standing by birth. Her conversation was engaging, her wit not without point (sermo comis nec absurdum ingenium); she paraded modesty, and practised wantonness (modestiam praeferre et lascivia uti). In public she rarely appeared, and then with her face half-veiled, so as not quite to satiate the beholder, – or, possibly, because that look suited her. She was never sparing of her reputation, and drew no distinctions between husbands and adulterers (famae numquam pepercit, maritos et adulteros non distinguens): vulnerable neither to her own nor to alien passion, where material advantage offered, that’s where she transferred her desires (neque adfectui suo aut alieno obnoxia, unde utilitas ostenderetur, illuc libidinem transferebat). Thus whilst living in the wedded state with Rufrius Crispinus, a Roman knight by whom she had had a son, she was seduced by Otho [sc. the future emperor], with his youth, his voluptousness, and his reputed position as the most favoured of Nero’s friends: nor was it long before adultery was mated to matrimony (nec mora quin adulterio matrimonium iungeretur).
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Otho praised the beauty and charms of his wife in the presence of Nero – either, so Tacitus submits in the following paragraph (13.46), because he was so smitten with love that he could not help himself (amore incautus) or because he deliberately wished to inflame the emperor’s desire with a view to a threesome that would have reinforced his own influence at court by the additional bond of joint ownership in one woman (si eadem femina poterentur [sc. he and Nero], id quoque vinculum potentiam ei adiceret). The plan misfired: once brought into the presence of the emperor, Poppaea succeeded in getting Nero infatuated with her, but, after the first adulterous night, played hard to get by insisting that she could not give up her marriage to Otho. To get rid of his rival, Nero broke his ties of friendship with Otho, debarred him from court, and ultimately appointed him as governor of Lusitania (present-day Portugal); there he remained for ten years until the outbreak of civil war in 68. After recording the appointment, Tacitus abruptly discontinues his account of what happened between Nero and Poppaea. One person who is an absent presence during this narrative stretch is Nero’s first wife Octavia, the daughter of his predecessor Claudius. Tacitus has Poppaea mention Acte (Nero’s concubine), but not Octavia. But once she displaced the emperor’s concubine, she also managed to have Octavia banished and, ultimately, killed – a gruesome sequence of events to which Tacitus devotes significant narrative space to end Annals 14 with a bang. Upon the trumped-up charge of having committed adultery with the prefect of the praetorian guard and then procured an abortion, Octavia was executed by Nero’s henchmen at the age of 20: after putting her in binds and opening her veins, they cut off her head and paraded it through the streets of Rome. Much to the delight of Poppaea.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Poppaea herself was accidentally kicked to death by Nero in AD 65, when she was again pregnant, with the emperor acting just like other tyrants in the Greco-Roman tradition, such as Periander of Corinth. Tacitus narrates the incident and its aftermath at 16.6, underscoring again how much the emperor loved his wife and would have liked to have children:
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Post finem ludicri Poppaea mortem obiit, fortuita mariti iracundia, a quo gravida ictu calcis adflicta est. neque enim venenum crediderim, quamvis quidam scriptores tradant, odio magis quam ex fide: quippe liberorum cupiens et amori uxoris obnoxius erat. corpus non igni abolitum, ut Romanus mos, sed regum externorum consuetudine differtum odoribus conditur tumuloque Iuliorum infertur. ductae tamen publicae exsequiae laudavitque ipse apud rostra formam eius et quod divinae infantis parens fuisset aliaque fortunae munera pro virtutibus.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [After the close of the festival, Poppaea met her end through a chance outburst of anger on the part of her husband, who felled her with a kick during pregnancy. That poison played its part I am unable to believe, though the assertion is made by some writers less from conviction than from hatred; for Nero was desirous of children, and love for his wife was a ruling passion. The body was not cremated in the Roman style, but, in conformity with the practice of foreign courts, was embalmed by stuffing with spices, then laid to rest in the mausoleum of the Julian clan. Still, a public funeral was held; and the emperor at the Rostra eulogized her beauty, the fact that she had been the mother of an infant daughter now divine, and other favours of fortune which did duty for virtues.]
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 ultra mortale gaudium: While Nero’s delight at becoming a father is a (mock-) sympathetic touch, Tacitus portrays him as emotionally incontinent, unable to restrain himself in either joy (as here) or grief (see below 23.3: atque ipse ut laetitiae ita maeroris immodicus egit). The phrase ultra mortale is also a not particularly subtle reminder of the ever-crazier tyrant’s delusions of divinity (apart from setting up the upcoming apotheosis of his moribund daughter).
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 appellavitque Augustam dato et Poppaeae eodem cognomento: The daughter’s nomen gentile was Claudia, to which Nero decided to add the honorific title Augusta. Within the Annals, the passage is part of a sequence, stretching back to the very beginning of the work: at Annals 1.8, Tacitus records that Augustus, in his will, posthumously conferred this title on his wife Livia: … cuius testamentum inlatum per virgines Vestae Tiberium et Liviam heredes habuit. Livia in familiam Iuliam nomenque Augustum adsumebatur (‘His will, brought in by the Vestal Virgins, specified Tiberius and Livia as heirs, Livia to be adopted into the Julian family and the Augustan name’). At Annals 12.26, he mentions that Claudius bestowed the honour on his wife Agrippina, in the context of his adoption of her son Nero: rogataque lex, qua in familiam Claudiam et nomen Neronis transiret. augetur et Agrippina cognomento Augustae (‘and the law was carried providing for his adoption into the Claudian family and the name of Nero. Agrippina herself was dignified by the title of Augusta’). Here the honorands are a newborn baby – and a concubine-turned-wife. The absurd devaluation of what in earlier times was a precious honour thus matches the degree of Nero’s emotional excess. Tacitus expresses his disapproval obliquely with a break in syntax after Augustam. Instead of simply stating that Nero conferred the honour to his infant daughter and her mother, he provides the information that Poppaea, ‘too’ (or ‘even’: see the et) received the title Augusta in a lengthy ablative absolute (dato … cognomento). ‘Poppaea’ sounded (gob-smackingly?) incongruous when yoked to the austere yeoman ethnic ‘Sabinus’; tacking on holy ‘Augusta’ completed the effect.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 colonia Antium: Antium (modern Anzio) was a coastal town in Latium south of Rome (see Map of Italy). Nero founded a colony of veterans there (hence colonia – though this species of self-perpetuation carried an oddly Greek name, ‘Antion’, ‘Opposite’/ ‘Against’; perhaps not coincidentally, back in 37 CE when he was born, as L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, his uncle Caligula was just succeeding Tiberius as emperor, before soon losing it with everybody). Many Roman nobles had sea-side villas in the region, but it became a particularly significant location for the imperial family. It was where Augustus received a delegation from the Roman people that acclaimed him pater patriae. The emperor Gaius (Caligula) was born there (and so according to Suetonius, Caligula 8.5, at one point even considered making it the new capital!) – as was Nero, who also took it upon himself to raze the villa of Augustus to the ground so he could rebuild it on a grander scale. He was in Antium when news of the fire of Rome reached him (Annals 15.39, discussed below).
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 23.2 iam senatus uterum Poppaeae commendaverat dis votaque publice susceperat, quae multiplicata exsolutaque. et additae supplicationes templumque fecunditatis et certamen ad exemplar Actiacae religionis decretum, utque Fortunarum effigies aureae in solio Capitolini Iovis locarentur, ludicrum circense, ut Iuliae genti apud Bovillas, ita Claudiae Domitiaeque apud Antium ederetur.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Here we reach our first example of what Stephen Oakley has aptly called ‘corporate servility’ in the set text: The senate tries to match the anxious expectation of the emperor before and his joy after the birth of his daughter by intensifying communication with the gods on behalf of the imperial family. This was an excellent way to show loyalty and devotion to the princeps; on occasion, however, it backfired. In his biography of Caligula, Suetonius mentions instances in which the emperor demanded that those who had made vows for his health when he was sick kept them after his return to health (27):
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Votum exegit ab eo, qui pro salute sua gladiatoriam operam promiserat, spectavitque ferro dimicantem nec dimisit nisi victorem et post multas preces. alterum, qui se periturum ea de causa voverat, cunctantem pueris tradidit, verbenatum infulatumque votum reposcentes per vicos agerent, quoad praecipitaretur ex aggere.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [A man who had made a vow to fight in the arena, if the emperor recovered, he compelled to keep his word, watched him as he fought sword in hand, and would not let him go until he was victorious, and then only after many entreaties. Another who had offered his life for the same reason, but delayed to kill himself, he turned over to his slaves, with orders to drive him decked with sacred boughs and fillets through the streets, calling for the fulfilment of his vow, and finally hurl him from the embankment.]
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Nevertheless, the practice remained a standard element in the peculiar social dynamic that unfolded between the emperor and other members of Rome’s ruling élite in imperial times. We (and Tacitus) tend to see the proposed honours as manifestations of corporate servility. It is therefore useful to recall that there is another cultural logic in play. Thus Ittai Gradel argues that this was a technique for the senators to get some purchase on the behaviour of the princeps: ‘Honours were a way to define the status or social position of the person or god honoured, but it was also a way to tie him down. The bestowal of honours to someone socially superior, whether man or god, obliged him to return them with benefactions. Or, we might say, to rule well. It could indeed be honourable to reject excessive honours, and for example, the elder Scipio had excelled in this gloria recusandi. On the other hand, refusing honours also entailed rejecting the moral obligations that went with them, even to the point of recognizing no bonds whatsoever. So it would be socially irresponsible to reject all such proposals.’
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 iam senatus uterum Poppaeae commendaverat dis votaque publice susceperat, quae multiplicata exsolutaque [sc. sunt]: As with his account of Nero’s reaction, Tacitus manages to convey his distaste in how he represents the senate. The front position of the adverb iam helps to generate the impression of escalation: already during Poppaea’s pregnancy, the senate had decided to turn the wellbeing of her unborn child into an affair of state. The priesthood of the Arval Brothers, which consisted of senators, vowed sacrifices in case of a successful delivery. After the birth, the manifestations of joy, so Tacitus implies, knew no bounds: collectively, the senate joined in with the emperor’s excessive reaction to the birth by multiplying and fulfilling their – proliferating – vows. The Arval Brothers too fulfilled their vows, as recorded in their Acta under 21 January 63: in Capitolio uota soluta quae susceperant pro partu et incolumitate Poppaeae. When the couple returned from Antium with their newborn, the Arval Brotherhood celebrated their arrival with sacrifices to Spes, Felicitas (or Fecunditas), and Salus Publica. (Tacitus’ publice possibly alludes to the occasion, though he refrains from providing details.)
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 et additae supplicationes templumque fecunditatis et certamen ad exemplar Actiacae religionis decretum, utque Fortunarum effigies aureae in solio Capitolini Iovis locarentur, ludicrum circense, ut Iuliae genti apud Bovillas, ita Claudiae Domitiaeque apud Antium ederetur: Tacitus now gives more specific details of what the vows consisted in, in his usual elliptical style:
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Tacitus now switches construction, using decretum [est] as an elegant pivot: the verb governs both the nouns templum and certamen (as subjects) and the following ut-clause (analysed in more detail below):
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 – utque Fortunarum effigies aureae in solio Capitolini Iovis locarentur, ludicrum circense, ut Iuliae genti apud Bovillas, ita Claudiae Domitiaeque apud Antium ederetur
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 In other words, we have (i) public thanksgivings (supplicationes); (ii) a temple to Fertility (templum); (iii) highly prestigious public games (certamen); (iv) the dedication of two golden statues to the two Fortunes (effigies); and (v) circus races (ludicrum circense). Polysyndeton (the alternating et … -que … et … -que) underscores the impression of excess – just as Tacitus’ persistent use of the passive voice from multiplicata exsolutaque onwards (additae, decretum, locarentur, ederetur) suggests a loss of purposeful agency on the part of the senate.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 supplicationes: ‘In times of crisis, the senate sometimes decreed public days of prayer, on which the whole citizenry, men, women, and children, went from temple to temple throughout the city praying for divine aid (supplicationes). In turn, a favorable outcome of such prayers led to public days of thanksgiving, on which the citizen body gave thanks for their deliverance.’
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 et certamen ad exemplar Actiacae religionis: After his victory over Mark Antony at Actium (on the coast of Western Greece) in 31 BC, Octavian founded the city of Nicopolis (‘Victory City’) nearby. Every five years, it was to hold Greek games in memory of the victory, modelled on the Games at Olympia: see Suetonius, Augustus 18. A Roman colony may have been set up in the vicinity. But, as R. A. Gurval points out, ‘Nicopolis was, above all, a Greek city with Greek institutions. Its local government, coinage, and public inscriptions were Greek.’ In establishing Greek forms of entertainment in Italy and Rome, the senate, then, seems to have tried to pander to the philhellenic passions of the emperor – much to the ire of Tacitus, who despised the Greeks. We have already had occasion to discuss Nero’s ill-fated gymnasium (see above on 15.22.2). The topic will resurface forcefully later on in the set text. Here it is important to note that the senators clearly knew how to please their princeps. But in Tacitus’ narrative, the contrast between the foundational victory of Octavian at Actium, which brought to an end a century of intermittent civil bloodshed, and the successful birth of Nero’s doomed baby daughter remains: it strikingly underscores the utter lack of proportion in the farcical measures proposed.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Fortunarum effigies: Two sister goddesses of Fortune were worshipped in Antium, and their images are taken to the Capitol in Rome in a lunatic’s idea of honouring Antium, the birthplace of Nero’s un-fortunate daughter.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 ludicrum circense ut Iuliae genti apud Bovillas ita Claudiae Domitiaeque apud Antium ederetur: ludicrum circense … ederetur is the second part of the ut-clause, in asyndetic continuation of Fortunarum effigies … locarentur. At issue are races in the circus, which already were established at Bovillae in honour of the gens Julia (see Map of Italy). (The town of Bovillae, about ten miles from Rome, was a colony of Alba Longa, which in turn was founded by Aeneas’ son Iulus.) Now Antium was to receive games as well, in honour of the gens Claudia and the gens Domitia (the dative singular genti is to be supplied with both Claudiae and Domitiae). Nero shared ancestors with all three gentes. His mother Agrippina was the daughter of Agrippina maior (who in turn was the daughter of Augustus’ daughter Julia and his general Agrippa) and Germanicus (the son of Nero Claudius Drusus); Nero’s father was Cn. Domitius. But the extraordinary honour he now accorded to Antium – in implicit rivalry with Bovillae – suggests a deliberate attempt to step outside the shadow of Augustus. John Humphrey’s analysis of the stone circus at Bovillae is suggestive here:
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Fully-built stone circuses will be seen to be very rare outside Rome at such an early date. Undoubtedly it was the special connection of the Julian gens with Bovillae that prompted the construction of this circus, for the reputed origin of Julus was at nearby Alba Longa whence the ancient cults had been transferred to Bovillae prior to the Augustan period. Under Tiberius at the end of AD 16 a shrine to the Julian gens and a statue of the divine Augustus were dedicated at Bovillae. Augustus may have established a college of youths (collegia iuvenum) at Bovillae, while in AD 14 Tiberius established the sodales Augustales which administered the cult of the gens Iulia. Both organizations may have been involved with the games at Bovillae. Circus games are specifically alluded to in AD 35 … and in AD 63 (circus games given in honour of the Julian cult) [with reference to our passage]; by implication these circus games had also been held in previous years. Thus the circus was probably used chiefly for games held under the close auspices of the emperor or the cult of the emperor, and it may have been located in close proximity to the shrine (sacrarium) of the Julian gens. … It is hard to resist the conclusion that the monumental entertainment buildings of Bovillae, like some of its other public buildings, were a special project of Augustus and Tiberius.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 The passage also should put into perspective the sacral investment on the part of both Nero and the senate. Nero’s predecessors and in particular Augustus had set high benchmarks in terms of honours received and self-promotion, and if he wanted to stand out against them – a virtual requirement of someone who took on the role of ‘princeps’: the elevated position of ‘the first or most outstanding member of society’ required permanent justification, not least vis-à-vis those who had held that role before. Nero could clearly not hold his own in terms of military achievement, so he decided to excel in a field of social practice on which no princeps had hitherto left a conspicuous mark: cultural activities cultivated in Greece. Meanwhile, as John Henderson reminds us, what he forgot was the meaning of the dual Fortunes’ rule over Antium – ‘Fortune’ and (her opposite number) ‘Mis-Fortune’ (Or as Horace puts it at Odes 1.35.1–4: O diva, gratum quae regis Antium, | praesens vel imo tollere de gradu | mortale corpus vel superbos | vertere funeribus triumphos; ‘Divine Fortune, who rules over pleasing Antium, ready to raise a mortal body from the lowest rung or change proud triumphs into funeral processions’). He might have reflected both on what befell the gens Iulia when Bovillan Augustus’ daughter Julia was born (he divorced her mother Scribonia and took the baby ‘on the same day’: Dio 48.34.4) and that these games were most likely one feature of Tiberius’ celebration of Augustus’ death and deification (or ‘deathification’). And as for the Claudian clan, it was more lunacy to insist simultaneously on both Nero’s adoptive and birth lineage; and it was less than fortunate a reminder to recall the end of the last Claudian princess Octavia, whose gruesome death Tacitus had just recounted at the end of the previous book.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 23.3 quae fluxa fuere, quartum intra mensem defuncta infante. rursusque exortae adulationes censentium honorem divae et pulvinar aedemque et sacerdotem. atque ipse ut laetitiae, ita maeroris immodicus egit.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 quae fluxa fuere quartum intra mensem defuncta infante: quae is a connecting relative (= ea). fuere = fuerunt. All the efforts were as written on water. Tacitus announces this anticlimax with laconic brevity and a mocking f-alliteration. quartum intra mensem defuncta infante is a good example of another hallmark of Tacitean style, that is, the surprising distribution of information across main and subordinate clauses. Here the ‘vital’ element is packed into a (causal) ablative absolute, with the participle (defuncta) and noun (infante) further delayed for special effect. The language is very matter-of-fact and unelaborated, again contrasting the simple reality of the death with the extravagant honours previously listed. In terms of syntax (and placement in the sentence) the phrase mirrors dato et Poppaeae eodem cognomento at 23.1 and the two ablative absolutes thus bracket the birth and the death of Nero’s daughter, adding to the overall sense of futility and finality.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 rursusque exortae [sc. sunt] adulationes censentium honorem divae et pulvinar aedemque et sacerdotem: The rursusque (‘and again’) at the beginning of the sentence gives a sense of despair to Tacitus’ words: for him, the new outpouring of sycophantic adulation is depressingly predictable. The verb exorior hints at novelty, and the proposed honours were indeed unprecedented: (i) deification (honorem divae); (ii) a sacred couch (pulvinar); (iii) a temple (aedem); and (iv) a priest (sacerdotem). All four items are accusative objects of censentium (the genitive plural present active participle of censeo, dependent on adulationes: ‘of those, who…’). Tacitus again employs polysyndeton to stress the profusion of honours showered on the dead baby by the supine senators and (as with the ablative absolute) to set up a correlation (this time on the level of style) between the events at her birth and upon her death. (See above 23.2 ‘et additae…’)
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 honorem divae: The senators proposed to deify the baby-girl. Accordingly, Tacitus calls Poppaea ‘mother of the divine infant’ (divinae infantis parens) at Annals 16.6.2. The move may seem preposterous (and Tacitus’ dry laconic account presents it as such). But we are supposed to recall what other emperors had dreamed up in this respect. Here is Cassius Dio’s account of how Caligula reacted to the death of his sister Drusilla:
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Drusilla was married to Marcus Lepidus, at once the favorite and lover of the emperor, but Gaius [sc. Caligula] also treated her as a concubine. When her death occurred at this time, her husband delivered the eulogy and her brother accorded her a public funeral. 2 The Pretorians with their commander and the equestrian order by itself ran about the pyre and the boys of noble birth performed the equestrian exercise called ‘Troy’ about her tomb. All the honours that had been bestowed upon Livia were voted to her, and it was further decreed that she should be deified, that a golden effigy of her should be set up in the senate-house, and that in the temple of Venus in the Forum a statue of her should be built for her, 3 that she should have twenty priests, women as well as men; women, whenever they offered testimony, should swear by her name, and on her birthday a festival equal of the Ludi Megalenses should be celebrated, and the senate and the knights should be given a banquet. She accordingly now received the name Panthea, and was declared worthy of divine honours in all the cities. 4 Indeed, a certain Livius Geminius, a senator, declared on oath, invoking destruction upon himself and his children if he spoke falsely, that he had seen her ascending to heaven and holding converse with the gods; and he called all the other gods and Panthea herself to witness. For this declaration he received a million sesterces.
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 pulvinar: A sacred couch on which the images of the gods were placed at a special celebration (the lectisternium) – the suggestion here is that the young baby’s image be placed among them as a new goddess (diva Claudia, Neronis filia).
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 sacerdotem: The singular surprises in its conspicuous modesty: in contrast to the twenty priests and priestesses that Caligula appointed for the shrine of his sister, the temple of diva Claudia looks decidedly under-staffed.
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 atque ipse ut laetitiae, ita maeroris immodicus egit: Another very short and therefore emphatic sentence, in which Tacitus makes explicit how highly strung Nero was. The advanced position and parallelism of ut laetitiae, ita maeroris (both genitives are dependent on immodicus) highlight that Nero is prone to excess at either end of the emotional spectrum. The adjective immodicus (‘excessive’) carries strong negative connotations in traditional Roman morality, which regarded control of one’s emotions as a sign of excellence; it correlates with the ultra mortale at 23.1, effecting a further bracketing of birth and death. Tacitus perhaps also invites us to evaluate Nero’s emotional reaction to the arrival and departure of his baby daughter against the high infant mortality rate in antiquity. Valerie French provides some numbers:
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 If we retroject the worst mortality rates of the modern world back into the Greco-Roman one, we would estimate that about 5% of all babies born alive would die before they reached the age of one month, and that among every 20,000 women giving birth, five would die. If we include late fetal and in-childbirth deaths, the probability of infant mortality climbs from 5% to 8%.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 These figures help to explain the high level of anxiety (and the investment in religious supplications) as the date of birth was approaching – as well as the tangible sense of relief thereafter; but they also help to underscore the emotional excess of the emperor: in light of the rather high likelihood that the child would not survive, the degree to which Nero was buoyed with joy and struck down by grief generates the impression of an emotionally unbalanced individual.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 23.4 adnotatum est, omni senatu Antium sub recentem partum effuso, Thraseam prohibitum immoto animo praenuntiam imminentis caedis contumeliam excepisse. secutam dehinc vocem Caesaris ferunt qua reconciliatum se Thraseae apud Senecam iactaverit ac Senecam Caesari gratulatum: unde gloria egregiis viris et pericula gliscebant.
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 The passage functions as a node that brings together various narrative threads. Tacitus here connects the last major event he recounted in his coverage of 62 (the speech of Thrasea on provincial government) with the first major event in his account of 63, i.e. the birth and death of Nero’s baby daughter. At the same time, he takes the opportunity to recall via the figure of Seneca the early years of Nero’s reign and to drop a hint about Seneca’s and Thrasea’s dire future. More precisely, the phrasing here stands in intratextual dialogue with the very end of the surviving portion of the Annals: at 16.21–35, Tacitus recounts the death of Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus (a respected elderly statesman), as the climax of Nero’s killing spree – murdering them was to kill virtus personified: trucidatis tot insignibus viris ad postremum Nero virtutem ipsam exscindere concupivit interfecto Thrasea Paeto et Barea Sorano (21; ‘After the slaughter of so many of the noble, Nero in the end conceived the ambition to shred Virtue herself by killing Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus’). The last image where the text breaks off is of Thrasea dying slowly in excruciating pain after opening his veins by order of the princeps (16.35). Thrasea’s death was preceded by the death of Seneca in the wake of the Pisonian conspiracy, narrated as the climactic bookend sequence at 15.60–64, which followed a similarly gruesome pattern.
¶ 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 adnotatum est … Thraseam prohibitum immoto animo praenuntiam imminentis caedis contumeliam excepisse: adnotatum est introduces an indirect statement with Thraseam as subject accusative and excepisse as infinitive. contumeliam – which is modified by the attribute praenuntiam (in predicative position and governing the genitive phrase imminentis caedis) – is the direct object of excepisse. prohibitum modifies Thraseam – it is Tacitus’ condensed way of saying that Nero forbade Thrasea to attend his reception of the senate. Nero’s decision to uninvite just him from the birth celebrations amounted to a renuntiatio amicitiae (renunciation of friendship) from the emperor, often a precursor to banishment or worse: this is what Tacitus refers to with praenuntiam imminentis caedis contumeliam (an affront which foreshadowed his impending murder). At 16.24, Tacitus notes that the emperor had prohibited Thrasea to join in the celebrations that greeted the arrival of Tiridates (the Parthian king) in Rome: Igitur omni civitate ad excipiendum principem spectandumque regem effusa, Thrasea occursu prohibitus non demisit animum, sed codicillos ad Neronem composuit, requirens obiecta et expurgaturum adseuerans, si notitiam criminum et copiam diluendi habuisset (‘The whole city, then, streamed out to welcome the emperor and inspect the king, but Thrasea was ordered to avoid the reception. [Aptly named for ‘Boldness’] He didn’t lower his spirits, but drew up a note to Nero, asking for the allegations against him and stating that he would rebut them, if he was allowed cognizance of the charges and facilities for dissipating them’).
¶ 53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 omni senatu Antium … effuso: Embedded within coverage of Thrasea occurs an ablative absolute in which Tacitus dispatches the rest of the senate. The whole (cf. the totalising omni) of the senate troop out to Antium to pay their homage to the newborn. The strong verb effundo (literally ‘to pour out’; this picks up on the image of flux in the previous sentence: quae fluxa fuere) helps to convey how the senators were falling over themselves to be seen congratulating the emperor and his wife.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 secutam [sc. esse] dehinc vocem Caesaris ferunt qua reconciliatum [sc. esse] se Thraseae apud Senecam iactaverit ac Senecam Caesari gratulatum [sc. esse]: The sentence introduces a surprising turn: after the reference to Thrasea’s impending doom (and its Stoic acceptance), we now hear [the story] that Nero reconciled himself with his adversary and boasted about it to his old tutor Seneca. ferunt introduces an indirect statement with vocem and Senecam as subject accusatives and secutam (esse) and gratulatum (esse) as verbs. Within the relative clause iactaverit introduces an indirect statement with se as subject accusative and reconciliatum (esse) as verb. There is an interesting shift in grammatical position from the relative clause to the second part of the indirect statement dependent on ferunt: in the relative clause Nero is the subject of the main verb and the subjective accusative of the indirect statement (se), whereas Thrasea is in the dative; afterwards Nero is mentioned in the dative (Caesari), whereas Seneca becomes the subject accusative. It is another instance in which Tacitus uses evaluative syntax: he elevates Seneca to a more prominent syntactic position than the emperor and uses style to reinforce theme: as Furneaux puts it, ‘the answer of Seneca implies that the friendship of Thrasea was worth more to Nero than Nero’s to him.’
¶ 57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 apud Senecam: What we get here is a throw-back to the times when Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) was Nero’s tutor and tried to guide him in thought and practice, not least through his treatise de Clementia (‘On Mercy’), which he addressed to his charge. At Annals 14.53–6, we were treated to an excruciating interview exchange when Seneca tried to let go his graduate and retire, only to run into a sample of the fancy rhetoric he had taught his prince pupil, and be refused.
¶ 58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 ferunt: Tacitus often reports a story in this manner, neither mentioning his sources nor vouching for the story himself. Here, he tells the little tale to illustrate aspects of the intertwined characters of three major figures.
¶ 59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 unde gloria egregiis viris et pericula gliscebant: egregiis viris refers to Seneca and Thrasea. Seneca won glory because of the fearless reaction to the emperor’s vaunting, thus speaking an unwelcome truth to power (always a dangerous thing to do), whilst Thrasea won glory through the recognition of his status as a benchmark of political excellence and integrity – again a worrisome position to be in if the ruler is a tyrant who falls short of the standards set by some of his subjects. The position of gloria at the beginning suggests that the outcome of the event was as it should be, then the delayed and threatening pericula reminds us that the world of Neronian Rome was not so fair and just, and that something more sinister was awaiting them. Ultimately, both had to commit suicide. That the same action simultaneously brings glory as well as danger reveals the perverse nature of Nero’s regime: qualities that ought to bring renown entail peril.
¶ 60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 et pericula: This is another instance of Tacitean style, what Oakley calls ‘the pointed use of et.’ He cites Annals 12.52.3 as an example: de mathematicis Italia pellendis factum senatus consultum atrox et irritum and translates: ‘with regard to the expulsion of the astrologers from Italy, a decree of the senate was passed that was fearful – and ineffectual.’ The same effect is in play here: ‘from this incident (unde) glory grew for these eminent men – and danger.’
¶ 61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 gliscebant: This powerful metaphor gives the ominous sense of their futures: glisco is literally ‘to swell up, blaze up.’ Tacitus is fond of it: he uses it at the very beginning of the Annals to describe flattery and obsequiousness ‘swelling’ under Tiberius: gliscente adulatione (1.1). It belongs into the category of recherché or archaic words that Tacitus and other historiographers prefer over more common possibilities: ‘The similarity exhibited by Sallust, Livy, Quintus Curtius Rufus (in his History of Alexander the Great) and Tacitus in their choice of vocabulary allows the generalisation that Latin historical style was marked by frequent employment of archaisms: e.g. the use of cunctus for the more mundane omnis (‘all’), glisco for cresco (‘grow’) and metuo for timeo (‘fear’).’ Moreover, ‘grow’ is just what Nero’s baby didn’t manage to do. And with her went – the whole shooting-match. Soon. Poppaea and Nero, Seneca and Thrasea. The dynasty of Augustus, the Annals of Tacitus.
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Bartera (2011) 161. Whether this standardization ‘reflects the political irrelevance of the consuls, who become, so to speak, “sclerotic” dating devices’ (ibid.), is another matter.
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See Diogenes Laertius, Life of Periander: ‘However, after some time, in a fit of anger, he killed his wife by throwing a footstool at her, or by a kick, when she was pregnant, having been egged on by the slanderous tales of concubines, whom he afterwards burnt alive.’ We cite the translation by R. D. Hicks in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1925) – with thanks to John Henderson for the reference.
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Oakley (2009a) 188, with reference to 14.64.3. As he points out, the examples are innumerable – and need to be appreciated as such: ‘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.’
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Hickson Hahn (2007) 238. She goes on to note the problem in terminology that ensues: ‘The term “supplication” (supplicatio) illustrates this problem [i.e. how to determine whether a visual representation of prayer constituted a petition, oath, or thanksgiving] well. The Romans used the same word to identify public days of prayer and offering for propitiation, expiation, and thanksgiving.’
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As a further point of comparison one could cite Cassius Dio’s account of the honours Augustus awarded to his nephew and son-in-law Marcellus after his death in 23 BC. It is indicative of an early stage of imperial honours, where the crossing of the divide between human and divine was still a taboo: ‘Augustus gave him a public burial after the customary eulogies, placing him in the tomb he was building, and as a memorial to him finished the theatre whose foundations had already been laid by the former Caesar and which was now called the theatre of Marcellus. And he ordered also that a golden image of the deceased, a golden crown, and a curule chair should be carried into the theatre at the Ludi Romani and should be placed in the midst of the officials having charge of the games’ (53.30).