¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 44.1 Et haec quidem humanis consiliis providebantur. mox petita dis piacula aditique Sibyllae libri, ex quibus supplicatum Vulcano et Cereri Proserpinaeque ac propitiata Iuno per matronas, primum in Capitolio, deinde apud proximum mare, unde hausta aqua templum et simulacrum deae perspersum est; et sellisternia ac pervigilia celebravere feminae quibus mariti erant.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 haec refers back to the measures covered in the previous chapters. In addition to efforts that relied on human skill and ingenuity, Nero and his advisers looked into the perceived supernatural dimension of the fire. The Romans had the option of ascribing catastrophic events at least in part to the will of the gods, as an expression of their wrath with human failings in religious observance. In the aftermath of natural or military disasters, they therefore tried to figure out what had gone wrong and what they needed to do to make amends, to re-establish good relations with the divine sphere. The chapter is therefore replete with technical words from Roman ritual and cult: piacula, Sibyllae libri, supplicatum, propitiata, templum et simulacrum deae, sellisternia, pervigilia. The persistent use of perfect passives (petita, aditi, supplicatum, propitiata, perspersum, with sunt/est systematically elided except in the last item) conveys a sense of the formality characteristic of ritual proceedings – as does the pronounced p-consonance petita … piacula … supplicatum … Proserpinae … propitiata … primum … apud proximum … templum … perspersum … pervigilia.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 mox petita [sc. sunt] dis piacula: A piaculum is an expiatory offering to an offended divinity, though it can also refer to an act or event (such as a natural disaster) that requires expiation. dis [= deis] is in the dative. The Romans looked into making atonements to the gods they held responsible for the fire.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 aditique Sibyllae libri: Tacitus uses noun + genitive (lit. ‘the books of the Sibyl’) rather than the more usual Sibyllini libri (‘Sibylline books’). These were a collection of prophecies consulted by the Romans in times of dire national crisis (hence Tacitus’ stress on them). The greatest sibyl (a female priestess struck by divine inspiration) of the ancient world was the Cumaean Sibyl, and it was works from her that were said to have been brought to Rome by the fifth king, Tarquinius Priscus. The original collection, housed in the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, was destroyed in the fire that ravaged the Capitol Hill in 83 BC, but the collection was re-constituted. Augustus vetted the holdings (burning many prophecies that were ruled apocryphal) and transferred the collection to the temple of Palatine Apollo (which apparently survived the fire more or less unscathed). The priesthood in charge of the books and their interpretation were the so-called quindecimviri sacris faciundis. At Annals 11.11.1 Tacitus tells his readers that he, too, was elected into this priesthood (see the Introduction for further details).
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 ex quibus supplicatum [sc. est] Vulcano et Cereri Proserpinaeque ac propitiata [sc. est] Iuno per matronas, primum in Capitolio, deinde apud proximum mare, unde hausta aqua templum et simulacrum deae perspersum est: ex quibus (the antecedent being Sibyllae libri) refers to the recommendations extrapolated (cf. ex) from the books. They included: (i) appeasing sacrifices to the god of fire, Vulcan; (ii) appeasing sacrifices to the goddess Ceres and her daughter Proserpina (their temples stood in the vicinity of the Circus Maximus near the Aventine Hill, i.e. close to where the fire broke out); (iii) appeasing sacrifices to Juno, first in her temple on the Capitol, then in Ostia at the sea, from where they brought ritually purified sea-water back to Rome for the cleansing of the temple and the cult-statue in the city.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 sellisternia: A sellisternium was a sacred banquet at which the (female) divinities sat on chairs. (It is a subcategory of the lectisternium – from lectum sternere, i.e. ‘to spread out a couch’ – during which the images of the gods in attendance were placed on couches.) A sellisternium was usually offered by women. See e.g. Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, in a section on ‘Ancient Institutions’ (2.1.2): Feminae cum viris cubantibus sedentes cenitabant. quae consuetudo ex hominum convictu ad divina penetravit: nam Iovis epulo ipse in lectulum, Iuno et Minerva in sellas ad cenam invitabantur. quod genus severitatis aetas nostra diligentius in Capitolio quam in suis domibus conservat, videlicet quia magis ad rem <publicam> pertinet dearum quam mulierum disciplinam contineri (‘Women used to dine seated with their reclining menfolk, a custom which made its way from the social gatherings of men to things divine. For at the banquet of Jupiter he himself was invited to dine on a couch, while Juno and Minerva had chairs, a form of austerity which our age is more careful to retain on the Capitol than in its houses, no doubt because it is more important to the commonwealth that discipline be maintained for goddesses than for women.’)
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 feminae quibus mariti erant: This is virtually identical in meaning to matronas, but Tacitus’ variatio here helps to exaggerate the number of means (and people) mustered in the appeasement process. The passage here stands in striking contrast to the prostituted illustres feminae at the sex pageant (37.3).
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 44.2 sed non ope humana, non largitionibus principis aut deum placamentis decedebat infamia quin iussum incendium crederetur. ergo abolendo rumori Nero subdidit reos et quaesitissimis poenis adfecit quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The clause introduced by sed brings out the tremendous effort Nero invested to make up for the loss of confidence in his reign caused by the fire and to combat the pernicious rumour that he was responsible for it – all to no avail. The sentence is designed as a scale, with the verb (decedebat) at the centre. On one side, we have three phrases that summarily rehearse Nero’s measures in the wake of the fire, in syntactical variation: ablative noun + adjective (ope humana), ablative noun + genitive singular (largitionibus principis), genitive plural + ablative noun (deum placamentis); on the other side, the simple noun (and subject of the sentence), i.e. infamia, which finds further elaboration in the quin-clause. The anaphora of non … non… underlines the failure of the efforts, which cover the human sphere more generally (ope humana harks back to humanis consiliis in 44.1), the emperor (specifically the praemia mentioned in 43.2 and his other forms of aid), and the gods (the large-scale campaign of appeasement Tacitus just recounted). These were not sufficient to quell the rumours, and hence Nero decided on more drastic measures – he needed a scapegoat to detract attention from his own perceived culpability. For this purpose, the Christians came in handy: Christianity was spreading through the Roman empire at the time, with two of its founding figures, Peter and Paul, still active. Legend even had them perish in Nero’s persecution. The sect quickly acquired a foul reputation because of its secrecy and idiosyncratic rites, such as the holy communion, during which worshippers consumed the body and blood of Christ, which an uncomprehending public turned into lurid and slanderous charges of ritual infanticide and cannibalism. This is the earliest reference to Christians in Roman historiography.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Nero’s persecution set a dangerous precedent. Rives draws out the implications of this incident for the fate of Christians in imperial times: ‘This episode provided a very clear precedent that being a Christian was in itself enough to justify condemnation to death. Thereafter, if anyone came before a Roman governor with a charge that someone was a Christian, the governor would have been fully justified in following this precedent and condemning that person, provided that he or she did nothing to disprove the allegation.’ At the same time, ‘Roman officials nevertheless had considerable leeway in how they responded to particular situations.’
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 decedebat infamia: The delayed subject is greatly emphasised after the long list: all of the methods Nero tried to crush this infamia (scandalous rumour) were to no avail, there it is still.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 quin iussum [sc. esse] incendium crederetur: quin = ut non. A very compact, Tacitean expression of the belief that persisted. The position of iussum adds emphasis, whereas the passive construction leaves it open who actually gave the order, though the rumour under discussion clearly fingered Nero as the culprit.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 abolendo rumori: The advanced position of this phrase underlines Nero’s desperation to eliminate the suspicions which fell upon him. The verb aboleo (‘to demolish, destroy’) is very powerful, conveying Nero’s desperation to crush the rumour.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 subdidit reos: This verb, here meaning ‘to put someone up on a false charge’ leaves us in no doubt as to Nero’s unscrupulous and hypocritical conduct, offering up scapegoats to cover his own perceived responsibility for the fire. The legal term reos (‘defendants’) is an ironical comment on Nero’s perversion of justice. Remember Tacitus’ preoccupation with pretence, hypocrisy and reality here as Nero happily massacres innocent people as a diversion. Or is this still sensible ‘damage-limitation’ within an effective crisis management?
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 quaesitissimis poenis adfecit: The superlative quaesitissimis makes clear the savage ingenuity Nero applied to the task. Although Tacitus shares his compatriots’ suspicion of the Christians, he shows palpable sympathy for the victims of Nero’s cruelty throughout this section.
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quos per flagitia invisos vulgus Christianos appellabat: The antecedent of quos is reos, the subject of the relative clause is vulgus. Nero picked on a group already unpopular with the people (cf. invisos). The –iani suffix in the term Christiani is ‘somewhat contemptuous’, suggesting the mob’s feeling towards this new, little-known sect. The strongly moralising flagitia (‘outrages’) denotes the abhorrence felt towards the Christians: ‘their crimes were those (like incest and infant cannibalism, cf. Tert.
Apol. 7) which a lurid imgination attributed to an apparently peculiar and secretive group, and of which members of that group were automatically presumed to be guilty (cf. flagitia cohaerentia nomini Pliny, Epp. 10.96.2).’ Miller’s references are to Pliny the Younger, Epistle 10.96.2 (cited in the next note) and the Apologeticum of Tertullian, a Christian living around AD 200. In this work, Tertullian offers a defence of Christians against charges of (i) taking part in crimes like ritual incest, infanticide, and cannibalism of the babies killed; (ii) high treason and contempt for the Roman state religion.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Christianos: There is some dispute as to whether Tacitus wrote Christianos or Chrestianos and, if (as seems now consensus) the latter, whether he meant to refer to Christians or, as some have argued, Jewish followers of an agitator called Chrestus, who is mentioned by Suetonius, Claudius 25.4, and whose Greek name, or title, ‘Useful, Good Guy’, would make a usefully sardonic point here, unlike ‘The Anointed One’; all the same, as Lichtenberg puts it, ‘there is no question that the Christians are to be understood under the name Chrestiani, for in what follows Tacitus traces them back to their founder Christus.’
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 appellabat: As Miller points out, the imperfect appellabat is perhaps best translated as ‘was beginning to call’: ‘The name originated (Acts 11.26) in Antioch, some twenty years before this date.’ Even from Tacitus’ point of view, the Christians were still a fairly novel sect that just began to rise to public consciousness. About half a century after Nero’s persecution, his friend, fellow-litterateur, and correspondent Pliny the Younger asked the emperor Trajan what to do with Christians while he was governor of the province of Pontus/Bithynia from 111–113. The most famous letter and Trajan’s response (Letters 10.96–97) are well worth reading as background information, and are available in English translation here:
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 44.3 auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat; repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque.
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 auctor … adfectus erat: A brief Tacitean digression to explain the sect’s origin and growth ‘with documentary precision.’ This is the earliest reference to the execution of Christ by order of Pilate in pagan literature.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio: The alliteration here is very pronounced, adding colour and interest to the Latin and perhaps stressing the lowliness of this religion’s founder from the Romans’ point of view – a condemned criminal. The designation procurator is an anachronism: as Brunt has shown, the use of this term to refer to provincial governors of equestrian status dates to the reign of Claudius. Pilate’s official title was praefectus.
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Pontium Pilatum: Praefect of Judaea AD 27-37 and in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion, which took place in the thirties (but before AD 37). This is the only mention of him by a Roman historian. He is part of the Apostles’ Creed (Symbolum Apostolorum/ Symbolum Apostolicum), a late-antique precis of the key articles of the Christian faith, which remains in use in Christian services today and pegs Christianity to a claim to historicity:
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae, et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum, qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine, passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus, descendit ad inferos, tertia die resurrexit a mortuis, ascendit ad caelos, sedet ad dexteram Patris omnipotentis, inde venturus est iudicare vivos et mortuos. Credo in Spiritum Sanctum, sanctam Ecclesiam catholicam, sanctorum communionem, remissionem peccatorum, carnis resurrectionem, vitam aeternam. Amen.
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Different Christian communities use different translations of the creed. In the Church of England there are currently two authorized variants: that of the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and that of Common Worship (2000). We cite the latter:
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 repressaque in praesens exitiabilis superstitio: Although Roman religion was usually tolerant of other religions, Christian monotheism led to mistrust and suppression. As we have seen, Christians refused to recognize official Roman religious practices, including the worship of the emperor in the imperial cult. Other authors contemporary with Tacitus also reject the new creed in no uncertain terms as a pernicious perversion of true religion (superstitio). See Pliny the Younger, Epistles 10.96.8: nihil aliud inveni quam superstitionem pravam, immodicam (‘But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.‘), and Suetonius, who in his biography of Nero notes the emperor’s persecution of Christians though without reference to the fire (16.2):
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Multa sub eo et animadversa severe et coercita nec minus instituta: adhibitus sumptibus modus; publicae cenae ad sportulas redactae; interdictum ne quid in popinis cocti praeter legumina aut holera veniret, cum antea nullum non obsonii genus proponeretur; afflicti suppliciis Christiani, genus hominum superstitionis novae ac maleficae; vetiti quadrigariorum lusus, quibus inveterata licentia passim vagantibus fallere ac furari per iocum ius erat; pantomimorum factiones cum ipsis simul relegatae.
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 [During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition. He put an end to the diversions of the chariot drivers, who from immunity of long standing claimed the right of ranging at large and amusing themselves by cheating and robbing people. The pantomimic actors and their partisans were banished from the city.]
¶ 32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 With supreme economy, Tacitus uses the forceful attribute exitiabilis (‘deadly’, ‘bringing death or destruction’) to hint at the nature of the charges commonly brought against the Christians, such as the killing of infants (see above). But it suits neither his style nor his purpose to delve into lurid details. Instead, he goes on to generalize on Rome as a cesspool of the world, a place where everything immoral or atrocious (whether to do with religion or otherwise) quasi-naturally converges: see below on quo … celebranturque.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 rursum erumpebat, non modo per Iudaeam, originem eius mali, sed per urbem etiam: The vivid verb erumpebat (‘burst out’) conveys the Roman fear of this allegedly dangerous sect, an effect further enhanced by the potent phrase originem eius mali. The province of Judaea was the region around Jerusalem in modern Israel/Palestine. urbem, as usual, refers to Rome.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 quo cuncta undique atrocia aut pudenda confluunt celebranturque: A savage comment on multiculturalism in Rome, with the hard c-alliteration conveying Tacitus’ bitterness. The hyperbolic cuncta and undique exaggerate the immorality which Tacitus perceives as seeping into the city, as does the vivid, metaphorical verb confluunt: just as all rivers utimately end up flowing into the sea, so Rome naturally attracts anything atrocious and shameful. Tacitus tops the natural metaphor by adding the surprising celebranturque: not only does Rome function as a cesspool of global vice; the inhabitants of the city revel in the immorality. In fact, on the lexical level the formulation, which exudes Tacitean disgust, recalls 37.1: et celeberrimae luxu famaque epulae fuere quas a Tigellino paratas ut exemplum referam: however depraved the imports from all over the world they have a hard time rivalling the degree of depravity achieved by the natives.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 44.4 igitur primum correpti qui fatebantur, deinde indicio eorum multitudo ingens haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt. et pereuntibus addita ludibria, ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent, aut crucibus adfixi aut flammandi, atque ubi defecisset dies in usum nocturni luminis urerentur.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 primum correpti [sc. sunt] qui fatebantur: The antecedent of qui (and the subject of the main clause) is an elided ii. It is (perhaps deliberately?) unclear what the (enforced?) ‘confession’ of those who were initially apprehended consisted in: admission of guilt for the fire or participation in Christian rites?
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 indicio eorum: Most of the first group were probably tortured for evidence to denounce their fellow Christians. Roman citizens were immune from torture, but few Christians were likely to have held citizenship.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 multitudo ingens: The hyperbole (though it is not perhaps a massive exaggeration) leaves Nero’s cruelty in no doubt. There is no way of telling what the actual numbers were.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 haud proinde in crimine incendii quam odio humani generis convicti sunt: convicti refers back to correpti. As Koestermann points out, the two strategically placed verbs mark the beginning and the end of the judicial proceedings against the sect. The Roman people were willing to acquiesce in the Christians’ conviction, not because they really believed they had been involved in arson, but because of their anti-social reputation. But the haud proinde … quam… construction makes it clear that Nero’s efforts to exculpate himself were in vain.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 et pereuntibus addita [sc. sunt] ludibria: The emphatically placed present participle in the dative pereuntibus evokes pathos for the Christians, mocked even as they die: ludibria (‘humiliations’), from the verb ludo, ‘to play’, seems especially shocking in the context of mass killings: ‘They suffered not only death, but a shameful death.’
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 ut ferarum tergis contecti laniatu canum interirent: Tacitus goes on to detail the kind of indignities that the emperor inflicted on his victims. The scenario he describes first sounds as if Nero staged a contemporary variant of the Actaeon myth: the Christians were covered in animal hides and then torn apart by dogs. The chiasmus (a) ferarum (b) tergis – (b) laniatu (a) canum, the first half governed by the participle contecti, the second half by interirent underscores the careful planning that went into the atrocious spectacle. As in the tale of Actaeon, who was turned into a ‘stag-man’ by Diana before being torn apart by his own hounds for having seen the nude goddess at her bath (see Ovid, Metamorphoses 3 for details), the procedure dehumanizes the victim: a human consciousness continues to reside in what looks like an animal body. According to Suetonius, Nero had a foible for this sort of thing: he reports that the emperor sponsored turns in which dancers brought ancient myths to life (or, as the case may be, death) (Nero 12.2):
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Inter pyrricharum argumenta taurus Pasiphaam ligneo iuvencae simulacro abditam iniit, ut multi spectantium crediderunt; Icarus primo statim conatu iuxta cubiculum eius decidit ipsumque cruore respersit.
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 [The pyrrhic dances represented various scenes. In one a bull mounted Pasiphae, who was concealed in a wooden image of a heifer; at least many of the spectators thought so. Icarus at his first attempt fell close by the imperial couch and bespattered the emperor with his blood.]
¶ 45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 aut crucibus adfixi aut flammandi: After dilaceration, Tacitus lists two further alternatives: crucifixion and burning. The verb continues to be interirent. The text of this passage is uncertain throughout and one manuscript reading is flammati (instead of flammandi). But the correlation of two perfect participles (contecti, adfixi) with a gerundive is typical of Tacitean variatio, and syntactically anticipates what follows. There is clearly an extra element to this humiliation, as the Christians were mockingly subjected to the same punishment as their founder, though Tacitus does not dwell on this. That some were nailed to the cross ‘proves that the Christians executed in the Vatican Gardens certainly had no Roman civil rights’ since Roman citizens were protected from suffering the mors turpissima crucis (‘the most humiliating death on the cross’), an atrocious penalty reserved for slaves and other subject people without citizenship. Those sentenced to be burned alive were dressed in the so-called tunica molesta, a shirt impregnated with inflammable material (such as pitch).
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 atque ubi defecisset dies in usum nocturni luminis urerentur: The phrase in usum nocturni luminis (‘for the purpose of nightly illumination’) brings home the appalling use of these human beings as torches: the horribly practical in usum (‘for the purpose/use of’) conveys Nero’s callousness. Miller draws attention to the Virgilian echo in nocturni luminis. See Aeneid 7.13 (when Aeneas and his crew pass by the island of Circe – she who turns human beings into various forms of wildlife): urit odoratam nocturna in lumina cedrum (‘she burns fragrant cedar-wood to illuminate the night’).
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 44.5 hortos suos ei spectaculo Nero obtulerat et circense ludicrum edebat, habitu aurigae permixtus plebi vel curriculo insistens. unde quamquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos miseratio oriebatur, tamquam non utilitate publica sed in saevitiam unius absumerentur.
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 hortos suos ei spectaculo Nero obtulerat: Tacitus here steps back in time (note the pluperfect obtulerat) to supply information about the setting, in which the appalling executions took place. The sentence unfolds with deliberate relish: we have the chiastic design of hortos suos – ei spectaculo, the delayed subject Nero, and the placement of the emperor’s name right next to spectaculo, which generates the mocking rhyme –lo –ro. At this stage in the Annals, the gardens are already notorious: Tacitus has brought them to the attention of his readers beforehand. At 14.14.2, they were the location for some ‘private’ chariot racing that soon become an attraction in the city: clausumque valle Vaticana spatium, in quo equos regeret, haud promisco spectaculo. mox ultro vocari populus Romanus laudibusque extollere, ut est vulgus cupiens voluptatum et, se eodem princeps trahat, laetum (‘and an enclosure was made in the Vatican valley, where he could manoeuvre his horses without the spectacle being public. Before long, the Roman people received an invitation in form, and began to hymn his praises, as is the way of the crowd, hungry for amusements, and delighted if the sovereign draws in the same direction’). And at 15.39, Tacitus reports that Nero opened his gardens to those Romans rendered homeless by the fire. As such, though he had decided that they would cramp his own style (33.1), they made an ideal location to put on a show to distract the populace.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 et circense ludicrum edebat, habitu aurigae permixtus plebi vel curriculo insistens: In addition to the spectacles provided by the public executions, Nero organized circus games to regain popularity with the inhabitants of Rome. He used the occasion to present himself as a princeps of the people, dressing up in the garb of a charioteer, mingling with the common folk in attendance, and presenting himself on a chariot. In the early years of his reign, as 14.14.2 (cited in the previous note) makes clear, this tactic had some measure of success. But it was risky. For one, it could only ever appeal to the plebs, and not to the senators (or historiographers of senatorial standing like Tacitus who makes no secret of his disapproval). The upper classes frowned on the emperor, the mightiest man in the word, debasing himself by dressing up like a lowly professional or even slave on the fringes of society (as we saw with the gladiatorial games at 34.1-35.1). The deliberate exposition continues with the chiasmus (a) permixtus (b) plebi (note the mocking p-alliteration, achieved through the use of the intensifying per-) (b) curriculo (a) insistens. It sets up the next sentence, in which Tacitus wryly informs us that Nero’s efforts proved futile.
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 unde quamquam adversus sontes et novissima exempla meritos miseratio oriebatur, tamquam non utilitate publica, sed in saevitiam unius absumerentur: Tacitus here generates a memorable paradox: he stresses the guilt of the Christians and deems them deserving of extreme and unprecedented punishment (novissima exempla meritos: note the superlative), and yet records that the Roman populace, despite their hostility, began to feel pity towards them. The juxtaposition of meritos and miseratio stages the clash at the level of sentence design. Nero achieved the opposite effect to the one he aimed at. Tacitus could almost certainly have had little evidence for this generalisation of the mindset of the Roman spectators at the time. But there are other instances in which the cruelty on display triggered unexpected feelings of pity. Compare, for instance, the sympathy the Roman audience felt towards the elephants that were slaughtered as part of the games staged by Pompey the Great to celebrate his victories in the Eastern Mediterranean.
¶ 51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 quamquam adversus sontes: quamquam modifies the prepositional phrase (‘albeit towards guilty persons’). Focalization is an issue here: who considers the Christians guilty? And of what? Tacitus? He previously cast the Christians as scapegoats, so not responsible for the fire, but could have regarded them as criminals in a more general sense. Or the Roman populace? (If they pitied the Christians despite believing them to be guilty of causing the fire, it would make the miseratio even more striking.)
¶ 52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 tamquam non utilitate publica sed in saevitiam unius absumerentur: The contrast is once again between public duty and private desire, articulated by the antithesis of publica and unius. Bestial monarchic power overshadows public need; the contrast between the positive utilitate and the highly negative saevitiam, is sharp to begin with and further reinforced by the variatio: Tacitus moves from an ablative phrase (utilitate publica; an ablative of cause) to in + acc. + gen. (in saevitiam unius), with the change of construction emphasising the second half. Nero did not manage to shed his image as arsonist. Tacitus famously returns to this failure in his account of the conspiracy of Piso when narrating the sentencing of Subrius Flavus (15.67, cited above).
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Text and translation are taken from D. R. Shackleton Bailey’s Loeb edition (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2000). With reference to the last sentence he comments in a footnote: ‘A rare touch of humour’.
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For a discussion of the paleographical evidence see e.g. http://www.textexcavation.com/documents/zaratacituschrestianos.pdf
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Miller (1973) 96. Her reference is to the Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament. In the Vulgate version of the Bible, the chapter (referring to events in AD 40) reads as follows: et annum totum conversati sunt in ecclesia et docuerunt turbam multam ita ut cognominarentur primum Antiochiae discipuli Christiani (‘And they conversed there in the church a whole year: and they taught a great multitude, so that at Antioch the disciples were first named Christians’). Text and translation from http://www.latinvulgate.com/.