The Emperor Nero died on 9 June 68 CE. The Senate had passed the ancient equivalent of a vote of no-confidence; his staff and bodyguards were rapidly deserting him. The Emperor made for the out-of-town villa of one of his remaining servants, where he pre-empted execution by committing suicide. An aesthete to the end, he insisted that marble be collected to make a decent memorial, and as he lingered on the choice of suicide weapon, he repeated his famous last words – ‘Qualis artifex pereo’ (‘What an artist the world is losing by my death’) – interspersed with some appropriately poignant quotes from the Iliad. Or so the story goes.
Whatever Nero’s popularity may have been among the grass-roots (enough, certainly, to encourage a series of ‘false Neros’ to attempt to reclaim his position in the years that followed), he had sufficiently outraged elite opinion that by 68 almost every Army commander and provincial governor had an alternative candidate for the imperial throne – or harboured ambitions to run for the office himself. Four contenders came forward in turn. Galba, the elderly governor of Spain, had been hailed as Emperor before Nero’s death. He arrived in the capital sometime in the autumn of 68, only to be murdered in mid-January 69 in a coup that handed the throne to Otho, one of his already discontented supporters. But Otho didn’t last long either. He was defeated by the forces of Vitellius, governor of Lower Germany, who was himself crushed a few months later, in the autumn of 69, by a coalition backing Titus Flavius Vespasianus, the general who had been directing the Roman campaigns against the Jews. Vespasian’s propaganda tried hard to suggest that he had been propelled somewhat unwillingly to the throne by the urging of his troops, and out of a sense of duty to save his country from yet more carnage. It is much more likely to have been a brilliant piece of calculation: Vespasian bided his time while the other major contenders fought it out, then moved in to ‘save the state’. Either way, the result was a new imperial dynasty: the Flavians.
‘The Year of the Four Emperors’, as it is euphemistically called in modern accounts, as if to avoid the term ‘civil war’, marks a crucial turning point in Roman history. Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. With him died not only an artist, but the very idea that claims to imperial power were legitimated by direct or indirect genealogical connection with the first Emperor, Augustus. For the rest of imperial history, what made an emperor – or what gave one candidate for the purple a better claim than another – would be a matter of dispute. And, as Tacitus sharply observed, in the conflicts between rival provincial governors with their rival armies, one ‘secret of empire’ had been let out of the bag: ‘It was possible for an emperor to be created somewhere other than Rome.’
The first contender of the four presented a very different image from Nero; hence, no doubt, his appeal to his aristocratic supporters. Galba was already over 70 when he claimed the throne from Spain; Nero, by contrast, had been only 31 at his death. Galba was no golden boy with artistic leanings, but a self-consciously old-fashioned senior citizen, with the kind of physical disfigurements (including a particularly unsightly hernia which required a truss) that might still count as marks of distinction to those who valued the no-nonsense, Republican, warts-and-all style of political leadership. He was also renowned for his economic prudence. Nero and his advisers had unashamedly adopted a financial strategy of boom and bust, but Galba seems from the start to have taken a firm grip on public spending – notoriously refusing to pay out expected benefits to the Army. This might have been a sensible policy in the long term, but in the short term it backfired disastrously. Prudence was taken, maybe correctly, for meanness; and as soon as they had the chance, Galba’s troops deserted to Otho, with all his promises of bonus payments.
In other respects, though, Galba was not so different from Nero. He claimed an ancestry no less distinguished. Indeed, the family tree, painted – as was Roman custom – on the walls of the atrium of his house, apparently traced his line back to Jupiter on one side and on the other, rather more riskily, to Pasiphae, the legendary wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur. This must have been seen as a fair match for the Julio-Claudians’ claim to be the descendants of Venus through her son Aeneas. Yet, if his ancestral past was glorious enough, the future of Galba’s line was more doubtful. Like Nero, he had no living heir. To rectify this problem, on 10 January 69, when he got wind of the uprising of Vitellius in Germany (he still hadn’t seen that the more imminent danger lay with Otho at home), he adopted a young aristocrat to be his successor: Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus. Piso was murdered, with Galba, five days later.
The adoption of Piso is the first major event in Tacitus’ Histories, which opens with the beginning of the year 69 and originally – though much has been lost – told the story of the Roman Empire through to the end of the reign of Domitian, and with it the end of the Flavian dynasty, in 96. Tacitus is now generally seen as the most acute, cynical and hard-headed ancient analyst of Roman political power, although there is little evidence to suggest that his books were widely read in the ancient world (and quite a lot to suggest the reverse). Born around 56 CE he prospered in a senatorial career under some of the Emperors he would later denounce, and seems to have turned to history in the late 90s. After a series of short monographs (including a surviving biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, one-time governor of Britain), he was at work on the much more substantial, multi-volume Histories by the first decade of the second century. So, at least, we can deduce from the famous eye-witness letters of the younger Pliny describing the eruption of Vesuvius in 79, which were written to Tacitus sometime in 106 or 107, when he was presumably gathering material for that part of his narrative. After the Histories, he embarked on another project now known as the Annals (both Histories and Annals are Renaissance titles), which deals with an earlier period, from the death of Augustus in 14 CE to some point around the death of Nero. We do not know exactly when it finished because the end of the work, among other sections, has not been preserved; and it may be, in any case, that Tacitus did not live long enough to complete what he had started.
The Annals has attracted much more modern attention than the Histories. It has been the key text in most of the recent studies of the rhetoric of history in Rome, and in attempts to understand the nature of imperial autocracy, in culture as well as politics. Even Barthes, who only rarely made forays into classical antiquity, wrote a short article (reprinted in his Critical Essays) on ‘Tacitus and the Funerary Baroque’, examining scenes of murder and suicide in the Annals, and exposing a Tacitean world in which the act of dying is seen as the only vestige of humanity left to the free man living under the tyranny of empire. (The original five-page typescript of this gem is currently on sale for $2500.) Among professional classicists, books and articles on the Annals consistently outnumber those on the Histories by as many as ten to one.
There are several reasons for this disparity. First, though neither come to us complete, much less of the Histories survives: just the first four-and-a-bit books out of an original 12 or 14 (compared with roughly nine out of a total of 16 or 18 for the Annals). Second, those four books of the Histories cover only the first two years of Tacitus’ chosen period, 69 and 70, and are much concerned with the brutal but extremely complicated fighting and infighting of a series of bit-part Emperors who, as individuals, made little impact on Roman history, politics or culture. Many readers have found it hard not to regret the loss of the later, and presumably much juicier, books on the reign of the monster Domitian. At the same time, it has proved difficult not to prefer the Annals, with its star billing of many of the popular heroes and villains of the Julio-Claudian period and their unforgettable scenes of crime, horror and (as Barthes saw) frequent death: the murder by magic of the charismatic prince Germanicus; Nero’s bungled attempt to do away with his manipulative mother in a collapsible boat; Seneca’s histrionic, Socrates-style suicide after he was discovered plotting against the Emperor. Third, there is the common view that the Annals is the culminating and most distinctively ‘Tacitean’ of all his works. From this perspective, the Histories represents only a step on the way to what Tacitus was to become as a writer; for the real ‘Tacitus experience’, you need to read the Annals. Certainly, his characteristic extremes of language, the extravagant neologisms, the insidious puns, the abandonment of syntax, are at their most extreme in the later work. It is here that we see his most daring attempt to find a new Latin language for the analysis of the corruption and the disintegration of morality that imperial autocracy heralded. It is this that makes the Annals uniquely challenging and disturbing. But it also has to be admitted that it is very difficult to read: expecting a student with two or three years’ Latin to take on the Annals is in some ways like offering Finnegans Wake to a non-Anglophone equipped only with a Basic Proficiency Certificate in English.
Yet this relative neglect does not do the Histories justice. Even the apparently unremarkable first line of the first book (‘The beginning of my work will be the consulship of Servius Galba, for the second time, and Titus Vinius’) raises significant ambiguities and important questions concerning the nature of the imperial regime. Some modern critics have queried Tacitus’ choice here. Why begin his story with 1 January 69 (the new consuls took office at the beginning of the new year), when the crucial political break had surely been in June 68, with the death of Nero and the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty? But, as Cynthia Damon observes in her new edition of Histories I, that is precisely Tacitus’ point. By parading (as he does elsewhere in both Histories and Annals) the framework of the old Republican consular year, Tacitus is highlighting the tension between Roman tradition and the political realities of the imperial regime: the reigns of emperors could not be made to fit the patterns of Republican office-holding which gave the Romans their age-old system of dating (‘the year in which X and Y were consul’). Autocracy, in other words, destroyed the foundation of Roman time itself. But there are other hints in this single sentence of major themes to come in the book. The casual, almost formulaic, reference to the fact that this was Galba’s second consulship certainly prompts a reader to wonder about his first. In fact, that had been a whole generation earlier, in 33 CE, way back under Augustus’ successor, the Emperor Tiberius. Galba, as this opening sentence insinuates, was a man who literally belonged in the past; one of the problems of the opening weeks of 69 was that a time-expired neophyte was occupying the imperial throne.
An even stronger flavour of Tacitus’ style of history comes with the scene of the adoption of Piso, where he puts into the mouth of Galba a lengthy speech justifying not only the selection of Piso but the whole principle of adoption as a means of finding an heir to the throne. It is a speech full of high-minded expressions of patriotic responsibility. Galba praises Piso’s star-studded lineage stretching back into the ‘free’ Republic, and emphasises his blameless record to date. He piously regrets that the restoration of traditional democratic government is no longer an option; adoption, however, is the next best thing, he argues, allowing a ruler a free choice of the best man to rule the state. Many critics have detected in this speech a clear reference to later events in Roman history. For in 97, when Tacitus may well already have been at work on his Histories, the elderly, uncharismatic and childless Emperor Nerva (who had succeeded the murdered Domitian) adopted Trajan as his successor – no doubt mustering many similar arguments. But if this speech was intended as a compliment to Nerva and Trajan, it was a double-edged one. For, as Damon and others point out, beneath the lofty sentiments, Galba (as Tacitus ventriloquises him) gets almost everything wrong. Far from there being ‘consensus’, as he claims, behind his choice, it is the adoption of Piso that finally pushes Otho to make his challenge. His assertion that only his childlessness is denting his popularity shows him deaf to the complaints of the soldiers demanding their benefits. And his idea that Piso’s aristocratic background and blameless record amount to a sufficient qualification for ruling the Empire is naive at best. Besides, Piso was blameless only because he had been exiled under Nero, had held no political office in Rome and had hardly had a chance to put a foot wrong; and, inauspiciously, his aristocratic forebears (as Galba is made to note) included Pompey the Great, whose defeat by Julius Caesar in the civil wars of the 40s BCE heralded the advent of one-man rule.
The adoption scene, in other words, makes a wonderfully suggestive opening to a narrative whose next stages will principally be concerned with imperial succession. Scratch the surface of Galba’s speech (Piso, significantly, says nothing) and many of the dilemmas of succession are revealed: not just who to choose, but how – and what arguments could ever count as good when picking a man to rule the world. It is a set of dilemmas picked up a few chapters later in Tacitus’ famous post-mortem summary of Galba’s career: ‘omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset’ (‘by universal consent capable of being emperor, had he not been one’). Further into Tacitus’ narrative of 69, the dilemmas are acted out yet more horribly in the appalling massacre of the civilians of Cremona who get caught in the crossfire between rival camps. Even bit-part emperors can wreak havoc.
Some of the pleasures of Tacitean history, however, are not always easily accessible. The violently radical use of Latin – particularly, but not only, in the Annals – defeats almost all translators. They usually wring their hands and lament the impossibility of their task in a preface. Kenneth Wellesley, for example, in his introduction to the Penguin Histories, talks of his ‘guilt and remorse’, and fears – not unreasonably – that he may ‘prove to have butchered his victim’. But, apologies over, they get down to business, smoothing out the Latin into something approaching standard English. It is a daunting assignment. To take just one very straightforward example, I have never seen any translation capture the subversive ambiguity of the very first line of the Annals: ‘The city of Rome has been/was the possession of kings a principio’. A principio can mean both ‘in the beginning’ and ‘from the beginning’, and the double meaning is significant. Is Tacitus’ meaning simply that ‘in the beginning’ Rome was ruled by kings (Romulus and Co)? Or is he also encouraging us to wonder if autocracy and the city of Rome have actually gone hand in hand ‘from the start’? It is hard to see what a good and readable (and saleable) English translation of this or much else of the Annals might look like. But something must be better than the ever popular Penguin by Michael Grant (‘When Rome was first a city, its rulers were kings’), which over its fifty years of publication has probably launched more misapprehensions of the character of Tacitus and his historical rhetoric than any other single book.
For all its difficulties, we should be helping readers back to the original text. Sadly, Damon’s edition of Histories I does not come close to fitting the bill, despite claiming to be ‘accessible to students of intermediate level’. Her comments take up a massive 200 pages on a stretch of Latin that occupies only 40. Though learned and perceptive in many places, and excellently attuned to the needs of a specialised audience (‘intermediate’ between graduate level and PhD, perhaps), they are likely to prove at least as obscure as Tacitus’ Latin to almost everyone else. We surely need something between this style of commentary and the bland English translations currently on offer.
The good news, though, is that some of Tacitus’ most characteristic and insightful themes shine through even the dreariest of translations. The figure of Piso, ‘the four-day Caesar’, raises one of the most striking of these: namely, the danger of living in the penumbra of the imperial family; the particular peril of being too well connected to be ignored, or trusted. The classic case of this in the Annals is the family of the Junii Silani, whose misfortune it was to be directly descended on the female side from Augustus himself. Every Julio-Claudian emperor anxious about his own legitimacy on the throne would take the precaution of disposing of the nearest Silanus – for Tacitus, a Silanian murder was almost part of the coronation ritual. Even total indolence (or a display of it) was no protection. Nero’s mother, Agrippina, made sure that one of the laziest of the family, nicknamed ‘The Golden Sheep’, was done away with on her son’s accession; ‘the first death of the new reign’, is the way Tacitus ironically routinises the crime in the opening sentence of the 13th book of the Annals.
Piso’s family faced similar problems. They were not merely well connected but, as we have seen, dangerously descended from Pompey the Great, who had become one of the most powerful symbols of Republican liberty in the face of autocracy. To be born into this family was to be born on a killing field. One of his brothers – who had dared to adopt Pompey’s title of ‘Magnus’ – was married to a daughter of the Emperor Claudius but accused of some crime and summarily executed in 46. (Seneca joked that Claudius had ‘given him back his name, but nicked his head’.) The same witch hunt also saw the deaths of both Piso’s parents. Another brother fell to Nero and an elder sibling must have been a later victim, for Tacitus ghoulishly jokes: ‘Piso had at least this advantage over his elder brother, that he was the first to be killed.’ For Tacitus these families represent almost alternative dynasties whose role in the imperial power games was to be slowly annihilated.
We shall never know in any detail their own side of the story. But in Piso’s case we do have a glimpse, for a lucky archaeological discovery in the late 19th century threw up material from his family tomb. The epitaphs of Piso and his brother Magnus are masterly examples of discretion, or euphemism. Piso himself is commemorated simply with his name and the title of a priesthood he held; recorded with him is his wife, Verania (who survived into the reign of Trajan, when she was apparently tricked into giving a legacy to a man reputed in 69 to have gnawed the decapitated head of her dead husband). There is no mention of adoption by Galba, no allusion to his nasty end. Magnus is commemorated as the son-in-law of Claudius, despite his execution on the Emperor’s orders. Only a statue bust, very likely found in the same archaeological assemblage, offers any hint of a family ideology that would fit the Tacitean narrative. It is a magnificent portrait (now in the Ny Carlsberg museum in Copenhagen) of Pompey the Great.
Were it not for the discovery of this statue with the family memorials, we might well have considerable reservations about the history of Piso’s family as told by Tacitus and (rather less acidly) by other Roman historians. After all, if dynastic murder flourishes under autocracy, so do accusations of dynastic murder; sudden death may often have been conveniently explained as the work of the emperor, or better still the emperor’s mother or wife. As many modern critics have recognised, part of the corruption at the heart of Tacitus’ picture of the Empire must have been the gloss, if not the outright invention, of the historian himself. An alternative version of this particular story could hardly deny Piso’s bloody end at the hands of the Othonian faction, but might easily be suspicious about exactly how suspicious some of the other deaths were; at the same time, it might have reason to question how far families such as these paraded their rival claims to political power or acted as rival dynasties in waiting. The presence in the tomb, however, of an image of Pompey – with all its Republican ideological baggage – does seem to support a broadly Tacitean view. So does the later history of the family. Piso himself may only have been a ‘four-day Caesar’, but a century on, one of his relatives, Faustina, was married to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, and her nephew became the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. They made it to the throne in the end.