(ii) 34.2–35.3: A look at the kind of creatures that populate Nero’s court – and the killing of an alleged rival
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In this stretch, Tacitus advances his narrative by loose associations: we move from Nero’s own appearance at Neapolis (33) to the gladiatorial games organized by one of his courtiers, i.e. Vatinius (34.1). The mentioning of Vatinius offers the occasion for a character-portrayal (or rather assassination) of malicious brilliance (34.2), before Tacitus claims that Nero conceived of the murder of his distant relative (and hence potential rival) Silanus Torquatus during the gladiatorial games put on by Vatinius (35.1). We then get an account of the events that led to Silanus’ death: charge, pending trial, pre-emptive suicide, speech of regret by the emperor, announcing that he would have exercised mercy even though the defendant was guilty as charged (35.2). The entire sequence is held together by a ‘factoid’ for which Tacitus could not conceivably have had any evidence: that the munus of Vatinius was the moment at which Nero began to plot the murder of Silanus. The suspicion that Tacitus here exercises creative license thickens in light of the fact that Cassius Dio (62.27.2, cited below) dates Silanus’ suicide to the following year. Again, one may wonder how best to explain this discrepancy in our sources. If Cassius Dio got it right, did Tacitus ride roughshod over chronological accuracy since he wished to plant a premeditated murder in Nero’s mind during Vatinius’ gladiatorial games, not least to blur the distinction between voluptas and scelus?
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 34.2 Vatinius inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta fuit, sutrinae tabernae alumnus, corpore detorto, facetiis scurrilibus; primo in contumelias adsumptus, dehinc optimi cuiusque criminatione eo usque valuit ut gratia pecunia vi nocendi etiam malos praemineret.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Here we get a little portrait of one of Nero’s creatures – the parvenu Vatinius from Beneventum, who reputedly had a long nose (Juvenal, Satire 5.46–7, Martial, Epigrams 14.96) and made a fortune under the emperor as informer and ‘sinister court-buffoon.’ In his Dialogus de Oratoribus, Tacitus mentions that Maternus eventually crushed the creature by means of some acid poetry (11.2). The vocabulary of wickedness – foedissima, sutrinae, detorto, scurrilibus, contumelias, criminatione, malos – is densely packed here to give a very strong flavour of the corruption of Vatinius and of Nero’s court.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Vatinius inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta fuit, sutrinae tabernae alumnus, corpore detorto, facetiis scurrilibus: After first establishing that Nero’s entire court teemed with disgusting misfits – the implication of inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta is that there were many others who reached the same superlative degree of repulsiveness – Tacitus proceeds to specifics. They are presented in a punchy, asyndetic tricolon, with typical variation in construction and style: (i) sutrinae tabernae alumnus, (ii) corpore detorto, (iii) facetiis scurrilibus.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta: The superlative foedissima, a very powerful and negative word implying both moral and physical ugliness, gives an immediate sense of Vatinius’ character. Tacitus further casts him as one of the ostenta (marvels, monstrosities) of the court, describing him like a freakish and horrifying object. ostentum is synonymous with monstrum and prodigium and refers to a spectacularly unnatural occurrence: Nero’s entire court emerges as an abomination of what is normal and natural.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 sutrinae tabernae alumnus: Tacitus reports scornfully his humble background, a sign for Roman readers of how unfitting it was for him to be in the emperor’s court. Note the emphatic position of sutrinae, to stress the lowliness of his family.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 corpore detorto: An ablative of quality. The adjective detortus (‘twisted out of shape’) gives a vivid evocation of his deformity. Tacitus, as many other classical authors, operates on the assumption that physical appearance offers insights into character. ‘Physiognomy’, as the procedure of deducing psychological traits from physical characteristics, was a pseudo-science with considerable traction in antiquity (and beyond). We should therefore understand detortus both literally and metaphorically. In fact, Vatinius could be seen as the ‘face’ of Nero’s regime – a twisted and ugly perversion of anything pleasing and natural. Under the Julio-Claudian emperors the ‘body politic’ is as deformed as Vatinius’ appearance. Not coincidentally, Tacitus uses the verb at the very beginning of the Annals in his characterization of Tiberius (1.7.7): postea cognitum est ad introspiciendas etiam procerum voluntates inductam dubitationem: nam verba vultus in crimen detorquens recondebat (‘It was realized later that his coyness had been assumed with the further object of gaining an insight into the feelings of the aristocracy: for all the while he was distorting words and looks into crimes and storing them in his memory’).
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 facetiis scurrilibus: Vatinius’ sense of humour was as deformed as his body. Again, the adjective scurrilibus is significant: it is a rare word and comes from the noun scurra, a buffoon or jester. ‘Tacitus is giving him a basinfull of his own medicine: comically, the name Vatinius itself originated as one of those peasanty Roman nicknames for physical debility, “Knock-Knees”. What for Nero’s pet is presumably a ‘trade-name’ apes (and trashes) an inherited aristocratic badge of honour. Nero’s next victim will go down for his pedigree name – and bona fide descent.’
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 primo in contumelias adsumptus, dehinc optimi cuiusque criminatione eo usque valuit, ut gratia pecunia vi nocendi etiam malos praemineret: Vatinius was initially recruited to serve as an object of mockery, but managed to turn the victimization he suffered on account of his physical disabilities around by virtue of his sharp and evil wit. This structure primo … dehinc (‘first… then…’) suggests the unexpected transformation of Vatinius from jester to power-figure.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 primo in contumelias adsumptus: In other words, Vatinius was taken in as a member of the court as a jester (not exactly a sign of his nobility of character or eminence). Jesters were, as in mediaeval times, a feature of the Roman imperial court.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 dehinc optimi cuiusque criminatione … valuit: Tacitus was aware of the potential power and danger of the lowlier figures in the court. optimi cuiusque stands in implicit contrast to Vatinius himself, and there is evident disgust as Tacitus reports how a shoeshop-born, crippled jester from Beneventum brought about the downfall of noble Romans. The mention of criminatione (by accusing) tells us that Vatinius became a delator (‘informer’): under the one-man rule of imperial Rome, many men found riches and favour by informing on their fellow citizens and having them condemned. Informers populate Tacitus’ Annals from 1.74 onwards.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 ut gratia pecunia vi nocendi etiam malos praemineret: The asyndetic tricolon, which consists of three ablatives of means, enumerates what Vatinius had gained under Nero: (i) gratia, by seeming to be particularly loyal to the emperor and by inspiring fear in the other courtiers; (ii) pecunia, because the confiscated property of the accused was often given in part to the informer; and (iii) vi nocendi, since influence at court and financial resources under Nero’s regime yield great power to cause even further damage and harm. The punch-line comes at the end: Vatinius’ influence at court is such that he stands out even among the mali – in Tacitus’ imperial Rome that took some doing. The word (‘bad men/crooks’), which refers to Nero’s other courtiers, casts them as a thoroughly reprehensible lot, while the fact that Vatinius outdid ‘even’ (etiam) them makes clear how abysmal a character he was. Tacitus uses the verb praeminere (‘to become pre-eminent over’, ‘to excel’) with cutting sarcasm: like the English ‘pre-eminent’, it is usually a very positive word, implying superiority and nobility; but in the twisted world of Nero’s court, Vatinius became ‘pre-eminent’ by being even more appalling and immoral than the rest. Turning physical impairment into a double plus, the jester turned informer rose to be a powerful – towering – strongman (valuit, vi, praemineret).
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 35.1 Eius munus frequentanti Neroni ne inter voluptates quidem a sceleribus cessabatur. isdem quippe illis diebus Torquatus Silanus mori adigitur, quia super Iuniae familiae claritudinem divum Augustum abavum ferebat.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Nero, so Tacitus implies, was such an inveterate criminal that he planned his misdeed even during hours devoted to public entertainment. That he did not even cease from plotting murder while indulging in pleasure suggests that far from being mutually exclusive voluptas and scelus coincide in Nero’s case, highlighting the emperor’s savage and sadistic cruelty. The effect is enhanced by the use of the plural for both pleasures (voluptates) and crimes (a sceleribus): Nero is a perverse and criminal polymorph. Here the victim is Decimus Junius Silanus Torquatus, one of the consuls of AD 53 (at the end of the emperor Claudius’ reign: see Annals 12.58). Like Nero, he was a great-great-grandson of Augustus – a lineage that turned him into a potential rival to the throne (see Family Tree). The murder harks back to the very beginning of Tacitus’ Nero-narrative, which poignantly starts with the death of Silanus’ brother (Annals 13.1.1–2, cited in the Introduction, Section 5). Like mother, like son, who, now fully grown-up, no longer needs parental guidance to commit murder (having honed his skills by doing away with his own mother).
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 eius munus frequentanti Neroni … cessabatur: eius refers back to Vatinius. munus is the gladiatorial games that Vatinius put on; it is the accusative object of the present participle frequentanti, which modifies Neroni (a dative of agency with the passive cessabatur).
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 isdem quippe illis diebus Torquatus Silanus mori adigitur: Cassius Dio has the following account (62.27.2): ‘Junius Torquatus, a descendant of Augustus, was handed over for punishment on a remarkable charge. He had squandered his property rather prodigally, whether following his native bent or with the deliberate intention of not being very rich. Nero therefore declared that, as he lacked many things, he must be covetous of the goods of others, and consequently caused a fictitious charge to be brought against him of aspiring to the imperial power.’ As discussed above, he places the enforced suicide in the following year. Notice the sardonic pseudo-parallelism between Nero ‘driven by desire’ and Silanus ‘driven to death’ (adigebatur, 33.1 ~ adigit, 35.1).
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 quia super Iuniae familiae claritudinem divum Augustum abavum ferebat: The Junian family was one of Rome’s oldest and grandest patrician families (i.e. descended from Rome’s original senate). Its most famous scions were the two Bruti, one of whom expelled the kings from Rome in 509 BC, the other who led the assassins of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The immense nobility and antiquity of his lineage make him an especially dangerous threat to Nero.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 As John Henderson reminds us, ‘the Junii Silani chapter in Syme’s Augustan Aristocracy is maybe the most powerful performance of prosopography – and of death by prosopography, or sentencing-by stemma-under-tyranny.’ And he elaborates: ‘Rhetorically mixing Junius Silanus in with the sordid jester’s fun and gladiatorial games gives Tacitus another chance to pump up the disgust: as if the bluest of blue nobles was not just liquidated but given the imperial thumbsdown – humiliated as star victim out in the arena among the condemned criminals and slaves. But this pathetically stark notice of elimination – earning no more coverage than that solo concert and those small beer games – also keeps the continuing story of the Silani (begun way back even before “great-great-grandfather” Augustus, and folding in the weight of the entire roll-call of Roman history since the republic began) as Nero’s prime alternatives-and-targets stoked: where the reign (and Annals’ Neronian hexad) began (prima novo principatu mors Iunii Silanus …, 13.1.1), all but ceased (in the Pisonian Conspiracy, where Piso feared the next Silanus in line as his likely rival for the throne, 15.52), and plunged into non-stop purge (16.7-9, that next-in-line goes down valiantly fighting the emperor’s hitmen): the nadir comes when a senator gets the three months April to June re-branded for Nero, Claudius and Germanicus, the last because the crimes of the Junii Torquati had made the name ‘June-ius’ unholy! (16.12) Finally, for the finale in our MSS, Thrasea Paetus provokes his martyrdom inter alia by public display of outrage for the Silani (16.22).’]
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 35.2 iussi accusatores obicere prodigum largitionibus, neque aliam spem quam in rebus novis esse: quin inter libertos habere, quos ab epistulis et libellis et rationibus appellet, nomina summae curae et meditamenta.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 iussi accusatores: The emphatic first position of iussi enacts Nero’s decisive, unhesitating actions, ordering men to bring trumped-up charges against Torquatus.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 obicere prodigum largitionibus: obicere introduces an indirect statement, with both the subject accusative (eum, sc. Torquatum) and the verb (esse) elided. prodigum stands in predicative position to the implied subject accusative: ‘…that he was excessively generous in his munificence.’ As Miller points out, these two well-chosen words ‘accuse him of being (a) poor, and so dangerous, as seeing in revolution his only hope of recouping his fortunes [cf. neque aliam spem quam in rebus novis esse], (b) responsible for his poverty, because of extravagance, and (c) over-generous, with overtones of bribery.’ Excessive munificence is one of the hallmarks of the tyrant since it secures willing followers who hope for more, so Torquatus’ profligacy is turned into an implicit threat to Nero. Cassius Dio (cited above) suggests that Torquatus gave away his wealth as a safety measure, to pre-empt being murdered to fill the imperial purse. Under Nero, plain to see, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 quin inter libertos: We are still hearing the charges made against him. The use of quin (‘moreover’) here helps the accusers to magnify his treason. All large Roman households had freedmen in senior positions who managed the business and administrative responsibilities of their masters.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 ab epistulis et libellis et rationibus appellet: Under the Republic, these titles would have been common in noble households. However, with the imperial household becoming the centre of power, these titles became essentially offices of state, which in turn meant that their use by anyone else but the emperor could be interpreted as a sign that this person harboured hopes of usurping the throne. The polysyndeton again exaggerates the number of Torquatus’ crimes.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 nomina summae curae et meditamenta: The genitive of quality summae curae (‘of the highest, i.e. imperial, administration’) goes with both nomina and meditamenta (a Tacitean neologism for meditatio). Nero’s henchmen charge Torquatus with putting on a dress-rehearsal for his ascent to the throne, which implies that he is plotting Nero’s overthrow.
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 35.3 tum intimus quisque libertorum vincti abreptique; et cum damnatio instaret, brachiorum venas Torquatus interscidit. secutaque Neronis oratio ex more, quamvis sontem et defensioni merito diffisum victurum tamen fuisse, si clementiam iudicis exspectasset.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 intimus quisque libertorum vincti abreptique [sc. sunt]: Nero’s henchmen go for Torquatus’ key servants: intimus quisque (singular in form, but plural in sense – hence the verbs are in the plural) refers to those whom he held in closest confidence.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 cum damnatio instaret, brachiorum venas Torquatus interscidit: Torquatus knew which way the wind was blowing and took the usual way out while the final verdict was still outstanding: ‘Suicide was employed (A. 6,29) to anticipate condemnation, and to ensure an easier death, proper burial and the validity of the accused’s will.’ For special effect, Tacitus again delays subject (Torquatus) and verb (interscidit) till the very end, though readers would have known what was coming after the accusative object (placed up front) brachiorum venas.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 secuta [sc. est] Neronis oratio: oratio implies that Nero spoke in an official setting, perhaps in front of the senate. The inversion of normal word order, which gives special prominence to the verb secuta, makes clear the immediacy of Nero’s statement, adding pathos and the irony that, straight after he all but forced Torquatus to suicide, the emperor claims that he would have spared his life if only he had waited.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 ex more: This phrase is loaded with Tacitus’ dark cynicism and despair: this, he says, was common practice under the emperors. In Annals 2.31, the emperor Tiberius did and said the same thing after forcing a senator called Libo to commit suicide: it seems this was a method the emperor could use to achieve what he desired and still maintain a pretence of clemency.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 quamvis sontem et defensioni merito diffisum victurum tamen fuisse, si clementiam iudicis exspectasset: Tacitus summarizes Nero’s oration in indirect speech: the subject accusative of the apodosis, sc. Torquatum (modified by sontem and diffisum in predicative position), is implied; the verb is victurum fuisse. Of course Nero does not concede that Torquatus was innocent; rather, he goes out of his way to stress that he was guilty. First, we have the emphatically placed sontem; then comes the comment that he was right to lose confidence in his defence (defensioni merito diffisum). Put differently, Nero here twists Torquatus’ suicide into a confession of guilt. This serves him as foil to promote his mercy: he would have pardoned a man whom he knew to be plotting against him. After what has just been said, Tacitus is leading his reader to say, ‘Yeah right!’
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 clementiam iudicis: Emperors liked to be able to boast mercy as one of their virtues (remember Nero’s rapprochement with Thrasea at 15.23), and Nero’s tutor Seneca had written a treatise entitled de Clementia, ‘On Mercy’, as a guide for Nero in his boyhood. The iudex Nero mentions is he himself, either because some trials of this type were held intra cubiculum (i.e. behind closed doors in the imperial palace): see Annals 11.2 for an example; or because he could have vetoed the capital punishment handed out by a senatorial jury (as he wished to do – but was pre-empted by Thrasea – in the case of Antistius: see Annals 14.49, cited in the Introduction, Section 6). That Tacitus presents Nero as referring to himself in the third person generates more of that ironic tone with which Tacitus has imbued this little story. ‘Nero said that he would have been saved, if only he’d waited for a fair, merciful judge… like Nero!’ At the same time, as John Henderson points out to us, Nero might well have acted on the principle nomen est omen (‘the name is a portent’) in driving Iunius Silanus Torquatus into suicide: ‘Besides the hallowed/dangerous name of Iunius, our Silanus sports the legendary badge of honour “Torquatus” originally acquired by T. Manlius in solo victory over a champion Gaul (followed by decapitation and removal of his golden “torque”, or “necklace” > hence “Torquatus”); besides the degradation of this pre-sentencing suicide, there is the force of the legend’s sequel to reckon with, as marked by the Roman proverb “imperia Manliana”, where Torquatus now in command did not celebrate his son’s copycat solo combat victory but instead had him executed for leaving the ranks without first asking permission (see Livy 8.7.8–22 for the gruesome details). Like everyone else, Nero knew perfectly well that “clemency” was not supposed to run in, or apply to, this family!’