15.37

[1] Ipse quō fidem adquīreret nihil usquam perinde laetum sibi, pūblicīs locīs struere convīvia tōtāque urbe quasi domō ūtī. et celeberrimae luxū fāmāque epulae fuēre quās ā Tigellīnō parātās ut exemplum referam, nē saepius eadem prōdigentia nārranda sit. [2] igitur in stāgnō Agrippae fabricātus est ratem cui superpositum convīvium nāvium aliārum tractū movērētur. nāvēs aurō et ebore distīnctae, remigēsque exolētī per aetātēs et scientiam libīdinum compōnēbantur. volucrēs et ferās dīversīs ē terrīs et animālia maris Ōceanō ābusque petīverat. [3] crepīdinibus stāgnī lupānāria adstābant inlūstribus fēminīs complēta et contrā scorta vīsēbantur nūdīs corporibus. iam gestus mōtusque obscēnī; et postquam tenebrae incēdēbant, quantum iuxtā nemoris et circumiecta tēcta cōnsonāre cantū et lūminibus clārescēre. [4] ipse per licita atque inlicitā foedātus nihil flāgitiī relīquerat quō corruptior ageret, nisi paucōs post diēs ūnī ex illō contāminātōrum grege (nōmen Pȳthagorae fuit) in modum sōlemnium coniugiōrum dēnūpsisset. inditum imperātōrī flammeum, missī auspicēs, dōs et geniālis torus et facēs nūptiālēs, cūncta dēnique spectāta quae etiam in fēminā nox operit.

Essay

37.1

Tacitus suggests that even Nero knows deep down that the people don’t believe he chose to stay in Rome for patriotic reasons, and feels the need to win the people’s belief in his claims. . . [full essay]

Study Questions

37.1:

  • What polarity in Roman thought is Tacitus dwelling on in the first sentence?
  • Explain the use of the infinitives struere and uti.
  • Who is Tigellinus?

37.2:

  • Explain the mood of moveretur.
  • How does the phrase Oceano abusque conjure an atmosphere of exoticism?

37.3:

  • What is effective in the syntax of iam gestus motusque obsceni?
  • What type of genitive is nemoris?

37.4:

  • Parse denupsisset. What is significant about Tacitus’ use of this verb?
  • Briefly explain the references to: flammeum; auspices; genialis torus. What do you think is the effect of these densely-packed terms from the ritual lexicon of Roman marriage?

Stylistic Appreciation:

How does Tacitus generate an overpowering atmosphere of debauchery and decadence in his account of Tigellinus’ banquet?

Discussion Point:

Which tenets of traditional Roman morality are broken in this banquet? Is the sexual misconduct of leaders a perennial source of scandal? Does Tacitus’ evident outrage at this banquet come from the same angle as ours at similar stories today? (What, for instance, are the similarities, what the differences between Nero’s orgy and modern ‘bunga bunga’ parties?)

37.1 quo fidem adquireret: A purpose clause: quo = ut eo.

nihil usquam perinde laetum sibi: An indirect statement, with the verb (esse) elided. nihil is the subject accusative, laetum the predicative complement. sibi is in the dative of personal interest or reference. The adverb perinde (‘equally’, ‘to the same degree’) modifies laetum. Hence: Nero wanted to prove that ‘nothing (nihil) was ever (usquam) to the same degree welcome (perinde laetum) to him (sibi) [sc. as Rome].’

publicis locis struere convivia totaque urbe quasi domo uti: struere and uti (linked by the -que after tota) are historic infinitives (i.e. infinitives used as main verbs). They serve to quicken the pace of the narrative as Nero’s immorality spirals to new depths. The verb struere is especially interesting: whilst it is used here to mean ‘to set up’ banquets, it can often be used of ‘contriving’ or ‘plotting’ a crime. The word thus contains a hint of the sinister undercurrent to Nero’s actions: they are paving the way for future outrages. The arrangement is chiastic: verb (struere) + accusative object (convivia) :: ablative object (tota urbe) + verb (uti).

celeberrimae luxu famaque epulae fuere: The superlative celeberrimae, qualified by the negative nouns luxu and fama (both ablatives of respect; celeberrimae ... fama is an ‘almost tautological expression’3), paints a lurid picture of the immorality of the banquet. More generally, banquets in Tacitus are often used as the setting of profound immorality. In Annals 14, Nero’s incest with his mother, Britannicus’ murder, and part of the plot to kill his mother all occurred against the backdrop of a banquet. The decadence and corruption of Nero’s court, of which Tacitus never ceases to remind us, make this an appropriate setting for the crimes of the regime and for demonstrations of his extravagance. Tacitus varies his vocabulary (convivia, epulae) and, with luxu (instead of the more common luxuria), chooses recherché diction to draw further attention to them and stress the number of degenerate feasts occurring.4

quas a Tigellino paratas [sc. esse] ut exemplum referam, ne saepius eadem prodigentia narranda sit. Tacitus here runs two sentences into one. Taken apart the Latin would be: celeberrimae epulae ... fuere, quae a Tigellino [sunt] paratae; quas/ eas ut exemplum referam... Put differently, the quas does double duty as both accusative object of referam and as subject accusative of the indirect statement dependent on referam. In English, this is impossible to reproduce and it is best to translate with two sentences: ‘the most celebrated feasts were those that were arranged by Tigellinus; these I shall describe as an example...’ Woodman notes on quas ... ut exemplum referam: ‘This statement, with its combination of the noun exemplum and a first-person verb, is unique in the Annals and signals that the following description is digressive. The start of the digression is marked by Igitur (37. 2), which picks up ut exemplum referam, and its closure is marked by denique (37. 4).’5

Tigellino: Ofonius Tigellinus was prefect of the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s bodyguard, an extremely influential position under the Caesars. Here he is presented as the architect of an appalling display of imperial decadence.

ne saepius eadem prodigentia narranda sit: One banquet will serve Tacitus as representative of the rest. This approach will save him from having to detail all the other orgies that took place under Nero: eadem intimates that Tigellinus’ banquet is nothing exceptional – though in reality, Tacitus has surely chosen an event of particular excess and debauchery. The feigned weariness in the ne-clause underscores Tacitus’ contempt (and his skill in focused, economical exposition), though he also clearly revels in relating this sort of outrage and knows what his readers want, too.

prodigentia: The word seems to be a Tacitean neologism – it occurs nowhere else in Latin literature. Its meaning here is something akin to ‘excessive extravagance or prodigality’, but its etymological affinity with prodigium (‘ominous, unnatural occurrence’, ‘portent’) also hints at monstrosity.

37.2 in stagno Agrippae: The general Agrippa was one of Augustus’ closest companions and the architect of his victory at Actium. He also left his mark on the urban topography. Arguably the most famous building he sponsored was the Pantheon. The ‘Lake of Agrippa’ at issue here was a huge artificial reservoir, built on the Campus Martius in Rome, which supplied the ‘Baths of Agrippa’ with water and also served as an open-air swimming pool. The invocation of Agrippa – one of Nero’s most famous ancestors – is significant: ‘Tacitus no doubt relished pointing the contrast between the engineering of Agrippa, Nero’s own great-grand-father, and that of Tigellinus, Nero’s henchman: the one was intended for use and regular enjoyment, the other exclusively for irregular pleasures.’6

cui superpositum convivium navium aliarum tractu moveretur: The antecedent of cui is ratem. The subject of the relative clause is convivium. Tacitus says, literally, that the banquet was moving over the lake, pulled along by other ships (navium aliorum tractu).

navium ... naves: A rare repetition for Tacitus, the master of variation. Here the polyptoton helps to generate a picture of the number of boats and to emphasise the diverse uses to which they were put.

naves auro et ebore distinctae: Tacitus continues to describe the physical wonder of the spectacle: the boats were ornately decorated with the most precious materials.

remigesque exoleti per aetates et scientiam libidinum componebantur: Tacitus proceeds to paint his picture: we now see the rowers, usually hardy, strong men but here characterised by the highly derogatory exoleti, the perfect passive participle of exolesco: the rowers, apparently, were male (pathic) prostitutes. They are arranged according to age (per aetates) – and their sexual expertise (scientiam libidinum). The suddenness of this revelation is a big surprise after the purely choreographic description so far! So, with extra shock-value for its unexpectedness, the moral degeneracy of the party comes full into view.

volucres et feras diversis e terris et animalia maris Oceano abusque petiverat: The subject is Tigellinus. The accusative objects volucres et feras and animalia maris are well balanced phrases that, with variation, cover animals of the air (volucres), land (feras), and sea (animalia maris). They come from far-flung and exotic habitats. Just like the phrases for the animals, those Tacitus uses for their location – diversis e terris and Oceano abusque – feature parallelism with variation: in each case, the preposition (e, abusque) that governs the ablative comes second (a phenomenon called ‘anastrophe’); many words in this sentence are highly literary or poetic, and abusque (from ab + usque) especially. As Woodman points out, Oceanoque abusque ‘is a most unusual phrase. The distance from which the creatures have been brought is underlined by the uncommon preposition abusque, which itself is further emphasized by being placed after its noun. And when Tacitus elsewhere refers to Oceanus in his own person (as opposed to in reported speech), he means a specific sea such as the English Channel or the North Sea; only here does he use Oceanus without qualification, evidently referring to the sea or great river which, according to ancient legend, encircled the world but about which even Herodotus expressed some scepticism on several occasions.’7 For the idea that all the animals are called to the cosmopolis by the blessed world-ruler’s magnetism, cf. Calpurnius Siculus 7, on Nero’s showpiece. The shepherd Corydon reports that ‘he saw every kind of beast’ (57: vidi genus omne ferarum) during games in the amphitheatre sponsored by the emperor.

37.3 crepidinibus stagni: crepido, stressed further by its position, is a rare word (a more prosaic synonym would be ripa) and reinforces the sense of exoticism and flamboyance of the previous sentence. One could take it as a locative or, more likely, as dative with adstabant.

lupanaria adstabant inlustribus feminis completa: lupanar, -aris n. is, as Lewis & Short coyly put it in their entry, ‘a house of ill-repute’ – or, to use the vernacular, a brothel. The disgraceful incongruity of noble women (inlustribus feminis) manning brothels sums up the total disintegration of Roman morals. The piety, chastity and virtue of the noble Roman family woman (matrona) or maiden (virgo) was an essential part of idealised Roman morality, and for noble women to be acting (in both senses…) as prostitutes is utterly appalling. Note how they appear in the midst of low, seedy vocabulary: lupanaria and, in the next sentence, scorta (‘whores’). Also, Tacitus does not simply say that there were noble women in the brothel: they were filled (completa) with them.

et contra scorta visebantur nudis corporibus: contra is here used as an adverb, not a preposition; scorta is the subject of the sentence.8 nudis corporibus, delayed emphatically to the end, paints a vivid and rude picture and completes the inversions of proper female conduct that Nero’s orgy apparently celebrated: ‘Facing each other on the banks of Agrippa’s lake were upper-class women and low-class prostitutes (37. 3). Normally the former would be parading themselves, behaviour to which inlustribus perhaps partly alludes; but scorta visebantur suggests that the feminae are indoors, as the reference to their housing implies (‘lupanaria adstabant ... completa’). Conversely, the nakedness of the scorta would normally mean that they were out of sight; yet it is they who are on display (visebantur). These paradoxes and reversals lead to another. Since the scorta are naked (nudis corporibus), the suggestion is that the feminae are clothed; and, since the feminae are also inlustres, there is a contrast between their presumed haute couture and their incongruous surroundings (lupanaria).’9 Put differently, in the topsy-turvey world Nero created what ought to be out is in, what out to be in is out; what should be in sight isn’t, and what is oughtn’t.

[Extra information:

With Tacitus’ account, compare Suetonius, Nero 27.2–3, who sketches a general picture of debauchery: Epulas a medio die ad mediam noctem protrahebat, refotus saepius calidis piscinis ac tempore aestivo nivatis; cenitabatque nonnumquam et in publico, naumachia praeclusa vel Martio campo vel Circo Maximo, inter scortorum totius urbis et ambubaiarum ministeria. quotiens Ostiam Tiberi deflueret aut Baianum sinum praeternavigaret, dispositae per litora et ripas deversoriae tabernae parabantur insignes ganea et matronarum institorio copas imitantium atque hinc inde hortantium ut appelleret. indicebat et familiaribus cenas, quorum uni mitellita quadragies sestertium constitit, alteri pluris aliquanto rosaria. (‘He prolonged his revels from midday to midnight, often livening himself by a warm plunge, or, if it were summer, into water cooled with snow. Sometimes too he closed the inlets and banqueted in public in the great tank in the Campus Martius, or in the Circus Maximus, waited on by harlots and dancing girls from all over the city. Whenever he drifted down the Tiber to Ostia, or sailed about the Gulf of Baiae, booths were set up at intervals along the banks and shores, fitted out for debauchery, while bartering matrons played the part of inn-keepers and from every hand solicited him to come ashore. He also levied dinners on his friends, one of whom spent four million sesterces for a banquet at which turbans were the theme, and another a considerably larger sum for a rose dinner’).]

iam gestus motusque obsceni [sc. erant]: With the adverb iam (‘already now’, i.e. during the hours of daylight – the iam sets up the following postquam tenebrae incedebant) Tacitus moves from setting the scene to the action. A very short, punchy sentence, made more so by the ellipsis of the verb, draws our attention to what went on. The fact that the gestures and movements are the subjects of the sentence (one could have imagined Tacitus using verbs: ‘they moved and gestured...’) gives them extra impact and generates the proto-pornographic impression of impersonalized bodies in motion, an impression reinforced by the emphatic, final position of obsceni.

quantum iuxta nemoris et circumiecta tecta consonare cantu et luminibus clarescere: The subjects of the sentence are quantum and circumiecta tecta; nemoris is a partitive genitive dependent on quantum; iuxta is here used adverbially (‘in close proximity’); the verbs are the historic infinitives consonare and clarescere. Stylistic features abound, conveying a sense of the sound level of the raucous party throughout Nero’s movie-set pleasure park: note the song-like rhyme in circumiecta tecta, the c-alliteration circumiecta – consonare – cantu – clarescere, and the chiasmus (a) consonare (b) cantu (b) luminibus (a) clarescere. Tacitus reflects the sound and light of the party, its over-extravagance and ornateness, in his verbal design.

37.4 per licita atque inlicita: Neronian vice covers the entire spectrum of possibilities, but Tacitus uses an oxymoron to articulate the comprehensive nature of his debauchery. In principle, it is difficult to defile oneself per licita, but Nero somehow manages the impossible. Conversely, Tacitus intimates that in Nero’s perverse indulgence in public disgrace, even otherwise sanctioned forms of erotic activity become filthy and hideous.

foedatus: A very strong and ugly verb, suggesting how utterly Nero disgraced himself and sullied any sense of public morals.

nihil flagitii reliquerat: flagitii is a partitive genitive dependent on nihil. The pronounced hyperbole again makes clear Nero’s degeneracy, suggesting that Nero saw this party as an opportunity to debase himself and made sure he left nothing out.

quo corruptior ageret: The antecedent of quo is nihil; quo is an ablative of means or instrument; corruptior is an adjective used instead of an adverb: ‘through which he could have acted with greater depravity.’

paucos post dies: We move on from the party to its aftermath. As in 37.2 Tacitus uses anastrophe, with the preposition post-poned. The link involves the personnel – Pythagoras was among the perverted crowd that participated in the banquet of Tigellinus (uni ex illo contaminatorum grege). It is important to note, however, that the marriage was not part of the banquet. Put differently, Tacitus has his cake and eats it too: at the beginning of the chapter, he announced that he would pick out a particular egregious instance of Nero’s debauchery exempli gratia – so as not to be compelled to cover the same stuff over and again (the implication being, of course, that Nero was a serial offender). At the same time, he indulges in the creative license to link up temporally distinct (but thematically related) episodes – in defiance of the annalistic principle. This condensation of material ensures that within this paragraph Tacitus reaches unprecedented heights on the imperial scandalometer.

uni ... in modum sollemnium coniugiorum denupsisset: Tacitus keeps his narrative dynamic and enthralling as we move from a general description, to a view of Nero specifically in that general setting, and now finally to a specific event. From a Roman point of view, Nero’s same-sex marriage forms a shocking climax to the depravities committed during Tigellinus’ banquet. Delivering on the heralded ‘licit-and-illicit’ headline, the emperor of Rome participates in a mockery of the sacred rite of marriage, and the perversion of this ancient ceremony is emphasised by the technical term for ‘real’ marriage, coniugiorum, and the adjective sollemnium. But the real shocker comes at the end: the verb denubo is specifically used of a woman marrying a man – so Nero is the bride here. It is therefore a savage comment on Nero’s inversion of everything natural and normal (with acid overtones of his being the passive sexual partner). (In the cultural imaginary of ancient Rome, the distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ was of far greater importance than the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual.)

ex illo contaminatorum grege: This refers to the perverts, who like the rowers and whores, fill the party. The illo adds a note of scorn and also presents them as infamous in Nero’s reign. The word grex usually denotes animals, and thus dehumanises the men and emphasises their degeneracy. Finally, the powerfully pejorative adjective contaminatorum stresses the moral pollution of these men. The memorable and scything phrase sums up the company Nero kept: it is a paraded on-the-nail quotation from Horace’s famous ‘Cleopatra Ode’ (Ode 1.37.6–10):10

... dum Capitolio

regina dementis ruinas

funus et imperio parabat

contaminato cum grege turpium,

morbo virorum.

[... while the queen | was plotting mindless ruin for the | Capitoline and an end to Empire, | among her pervert company of disease- | polluted ‘males.’]

As Tony Woodman explains, this allusion to Horace clinches Tacitus’ subliminal transformation of Rome into Alexandria: ‘Horace was referring to the eunuchs who were conventionally associated with Egypt in the ancient world; and in his ode their leader, being a woman (regina), is an appropriate analogue to Nero, who in his wedding to Pythagoras adopts the female role. Yet Cleopatra was not only a woman but queen of, precisely, Alexandria.’11 The allusion, then, achieves an identification of malicious ingenuity: Nero is Cleopatra, the king of Rome has turned into the queen of Egypt.12 There is a further, sinister dimension to the Horatian intertext. His poem is, after all, a victory ode that celebrates a Roman triumph over an alien queen who tried to reduce Rome to ruins. Yet especially with the account of the fire coming up, Tacitus strongly implies that Nero succeeded where Cleopatra failed – Rome, in Horace’s words, has become ‘polluted’, an empire has indeed come to ‘an end.’ We are, in other words, faced with another inversion, this time at the literary level: whereas Horace, writing under Augustus, composed a victory ode of joy, relief, and celebration that, in exorcising a threat from the East, looks forward to a bright future, Tacitus’ narrative, which here chronicles the crimes of the last scion of the dynasty, who undoes or even reverses Augustus’ victory of West over East, offers an obituary on Julio-Claudian Rome, which collapses in onto itself: in a monstrous spectacle of imperial history returning to its beginnings, Nero is Augustus, Antony, and Cleopatra all in one.

nomen Pythagorae fuit: The name is Greek, conjuring ideas of effeminacy, homosexuality and loose morality. He is almost certainly also a eunuch – and a dreadful bringdown of a parodic return to life for the metempsychosis (and triangle and vegetarianism) guru.

flammeum ... auspices ... dos ... genialis torus ... faces nuptiales: All the ritual elements of genuine marriage are there in this disgraceful sham of a wedding, and Tacitus, by using the technical language of weddings, wants us to dwell on how totally Nero perverted the sacred ceremony:13

  • The flammeum was the orange veil worn by the bride at her wedding (again, note that Nero assumes the female role).
  • An auspex was a priest who foretold the future by observing the flight of birds. Auspices were sent to take their reading as part of the Roman wedding ceremony to gage the future prospects of the couple.
  • The bride’s dowry (dos) was officially transferred as part of the service.
  • The bride and groom’s marriage bed (torus genialis), on which the marriage would be consummated and which was a symbol of their union, was on prominent display during the ceremony.
  • The wedding procession was accompanied by torch-bearers carrying the wedding torches (faces nuptiales), further symbols of wedlock.

inditum imperatori flammeum: Tacitus deliberately refers to Nero not by his name but by his most military title, imperator (‘emperor’, ‘commander’). The appalling incongruity of this title inserted strategically in-between inditum ... flammeum (the word-order enacts the covering of the emperor in the bridal veil), brings dramatically and graphically to life Nero’s distortion of both his office and the ceremony of wedlock. And his passive role in this play for today. Nero allegedly takes on a much more active role in the following chapter, which contains Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome – and Tacitus makes the connection via a verbal link: ‘Nero’s flammeum provides both a verbal and visual harbinger for the flammae that will sweep through the city of Rome in the next chapter (15.38.2).’14

dos et genialis torus et faces nuptiales: The asyndeton of the previous two phrases, both containing verbs, turns into polysyndeton here, combined with the absence of any verb at all: this speeds up the list of sacred objects of marriage, which now pile up as Tacitus fires out the items Nero profaned. The perfect symmetry of the chiasmus (a) genialis (b) torus (b) faces (a) nuptiales, which features two adjectives meaning ‘of marriage’ in prominent position, brings details of the ceremonial part of the wedding to a mocking end – before Tacitus proceeds to recount its consummation.

cuncta denique spectata quae etiam in femina nox operit: Tacitus refers to the act of consummation. The culmination of a genuine wedding service came at night, when the bride was undressed by fellow women who had only ever had one man (univirae), before the groom was brought in and the marriage consummated in private, while friends and family sang wedding hymns outside. But Nero ‘consummates’ his ‘marriage’ by having intercourse with his ‘groom’ Pythagoras in full view of everyone. The cuncta (everything) suggests pretty graphically that there was no modesty here.

etiam in femina nox operit: In other words even (etiam) in heterosexual weddings decency requires the cover of night for the act of consummation. In contrast, Nero turns his wedding night experience into a public spectacle. And into the bargain, the way Tacitus makes it sound, right before their very eyes s/he pulled off a wizard feat of anatomical impossibility!

37.4 per licita atque inlicita: Neronian vice covers the entire spectrum of possibilities, but Tacitus uses an oxymoron to articulate the comprehensive nature of his debauchery. In principle, it is difficult to defile oneself per licita, but Nero somehow manages the impossible. Conversely, Tacitus intimates that in Nero’s perverse indulgence in public disgrace, even otherwise sanctioned forms of erotic activity become filthy and hideous.

foedatus: A very strong and ugly verb, suggesting how utterly Nero disgraced himself and sullied any sense of public morals.

nihil flagitii reliquerat: flagitii is a partitive genitive dependent on nihil. The pronounced hyperbole again makes clear Nero’s degeneracy, suggesting that Nero saw this party as an opportunity to debase himself and made sure he left nothing out.

quo corruptior ageret: The antecedent of quo is nihil; quo is an ablative of means or instrument; corruptior is an adjective used instead of an adverb: ‘through which he could have acted with greater depravity.’

paucos post dies: We move on from the party to its aftermath. As in 37.2 Tacitus uses anastrophe, with the preposition post-poned. The link involves the personnel – Pythagoras was among the perverted crowd that participated in the banquet of Tigellinus (uni ex illo contaminatorum grege). It is important to note, however, that the marriage was not part of the banquet. Put differently, Tacitus has his cake and eats it too: at the beginning of the chapter, he announced that he would pick out a particular egregious instance of Nero’s debauchery exempli gratia – so as not to be compelled to cover the same stuff over and again (the implication being, of course, that Nero was a serial offender). At the same time, he indulges in the creative license to link up temporally distinct (but thematically related) episodes – in defiance of the annalistic principle. This condensation of material ensures that within this paragraph Tacitus reaches unprecedented heights on the imperial scandalometer.

uni ... in modum sollemnium coniugiorum denupsisset: Tacitus keeps his narrative dynamic and enthralling as we move from a general description, to a view of Nero specifically in that general setting, and now finally to a specific event. From a Roman point of view, Nero’s same-sex marriage forms a shocking climax to the depravities committed during Tigellinus’ banquet. Delivering on the heralded ‘licit-and-illicit’ headline, the emperor of Rome participates in a mockery of the sacred rite of marriage, and the perversion of this ancient ceremony is emphasised by the technical term for ‘real’ marriage, coniugiorum, and the adjective sollemnium. But the real shocker comes at the end: the verb denubo is specifically used of a woman marrying a man – so Nero is the bride here. It is therefore a savage comment on Nero’s inversion of everything natural and normal (with acid overtones of his being the passive sexual partner). (In the cultural imaginary of ancient Rome, the distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ was of far greater importance than the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual.)

ex illo contaminatorum grege: This refers to the perverts, who like the rowers and whores, fill the party. The illo adds a note of scorn and also presents them as infamous in Nero’s reign. The word grex usually denotes animals, and thus dehumanises the men and emphasises their degeneracy. Finally, the powerfully pejorative adjective contaminatorum stresses the moral pollution of these men. The memorable and scything phrase sums up the company Nero kept: it is a paraded on-the-nail quotation from Horace’s famous ‘Cleopatra Ode’ (Ode 1.37.6–10):10

... dum Capitolio

regina dementis ruinas

funus et imperio parabat

contaminato cum grege turpium,

morbo virorum.

[... while the queen | was plotting mindless ruin for the | Capitoline and an end to Empire, | among her pervert company of disease- | polluted ‘males.’]

As Tony Woodman explains, this allusion to Horace clinches Tacitus’ subliminal transformation of Rome into Alexandria: ‘Horace was referring to the eunuchs who were conventionally associated with Egypt in the ancient world; and in his ode their leader, being a woman (regina), is an appropriate analogue to Nero, who in his wedding to Pythagoras adopts the female role. Yet Cleopatra was not only a woman but queen of, precisely, Alexandria.’11 The allusion, then, achieves an identification of malicious ingenuity: Nero is Cleopatra, the king of Rome has turned into the queen of Egypt.12 There is a further, sinister dimension to the Horatian intertext. His poem is, after all, a victory ode that celebrates a Roman triumph over an alien queen who tried to reduce Rome to ruins. Yet especially with the account of the fire coming up, Tacitus strongly implies that Nero succeeded where Cleopatra failed – Rome, in Horace’s words, has become ‘polluted’, an empire has indeed come to ‘an end.’ We are, in other words, faced with another inversion, this time at the literary level: whereas Horace, writing under Augustus, composed a victory ode of joy, relief, and celebration that, in exorcising a threat from the East, looks forward to a bright future, Tacitus’ narrative, which here chronicles the crimes of the last scion of the dynasty, who undoes or even reverses Augustus’ victory of West over East, offers an obituary on Julio-Claudian Rome, which collapses in onto itself: in a monstrous spectacle of imperial history returning to its beginnings, Nero is Augustus, Antony, and Cleopatra all in one.

nomen Pythagorae fuit: The name is Greek, conjuring ideas of effeminacy, homosexuality and loose morality. He is almost certainly also a eunuch – and a dreadful bringdown of a parodic return to life for the metempsychosis (and triangle and vegetarianism) guru.

flammeum ... auspices ... dos ... genialis torus ... faces nuptiales: All the ritual elements of genuine marriage are there in this disgraceful sham of a wedding, and Tacitus, by using the technical language of weddings, wants us to dwell on how totally Nero perverted the sacred ceremony:13

  • The flammeum was the orange veil worn by the bride at her wedding (again, note that Nero assumes the female role).
  • An auspex was a priest who foretold the future by observing the flight of birds. Auspices were sent to take their reading as part of the Roman wedding ceremony to gage the future prospects of the couple.
  • The bride’s dowry (dos) was officially transferred as part of the service.
  • The bride and groom’s marriage bed (torus genialis), on which the marriage would be consummated and which was a symbol of their union, was on prominent display during the ceremony.
  • The wedding procession was accompanied by torch-bearers carrying the wedding torches (faces nuptiales), further symbols of wedlock.

inditum imperatori flammeum: Tacitus deliberately refers to Nero not by his name but by his most military title, imperator (‘emperor’, ‘commander’). The appalling incongruity of this title inserted strategically in-between inditum ... flammeum (the word-order enacts the covering of the emperor in the bridal veil), brings dramatically and graphically to life Nero’s distortion of both his office and the ceremony of wedlock. And his passive role in this play for today. Nero allegedly takes on a much more active role in the following chapter, which contains Tacitus’ account of the fire of Rome – and Tacitus makes the connection via a verbal link: ‘Nero’s flammeum provides both a verbal and visual harbinger for the flammae that will sweep through the city of Rome in the next chapter (15.38.2).’14

dos et genialis torus et faces nuptiales: The asyndeton of the previous two phrases, both containing verbs, turns into polysyndeton here, combined with the absence of any verb at all: this speeds up the list of sacred objects of marriage, which now pile up as Tacitus fires out the items Nero profaned. The perfect symmetry of the chiasmus (a) genialis (b) torus (b) faces (a) nuptiales, which features two adjectives meaning ‘of marriage’ in prominent position, brings details of the ceremonial part of the wedding to a mocking end – before Tacitus proceeds to recount its consummation.

cuncta denique spectata quae etiam in femina nox operit: Tacitus refers to the act of consummation. The culmination of a genuine wedding service came at night, when the bride was undressed by fellow women who had only ever had one man (univirae), before the groom was brought in and the marriage consummated in private, while friends and family sang wedding hymns outside. But Nero ‘consummates’ his ‘marriage’ by having intercourse with his ‘groom’ Pythagoras in full view of everyone. The cuncta (everything) suggests pretty graphically that there was no modesty here.

etiam in femina nox operit: In other words even (etiam) in heterosexual weddings decency requires the cover of night for the act of consummation. In contrast, Nero turns his wedding night experience into a public spectacle. And into the bargain, the way Tacitus makes it sound, right before their very eyes s/he pulled off a wizard feat of anatomical impossibility!

Footnotes

1 Cf. Annals 11.27 where Tacitus dismissively speaks of imperial Rome as a society in which there are no secrets and no topic is off-limits (in civitate omnium gnara et nihil reticente). His historiography is not least an attempt to establish a dignified voice within this sea of incessant, shameless chatter.

2 Woodman (1998).

1 Woodman (1998) 172.

2 See more generally Woodman (2004) xxii: ‘given a choice of synonyms, Tacitus often varies the linguistic norm by choosing the less common: luxus (“luxuriousness”) for luxuria (“luxury”), maestitia (“sorrowfulness”) for maeror (“sorrow”), seruitium (“servitude”) for seruitus (“slavery”).’

3 Woodman (1998) 171–72.

4 Woodman (1998) 172.

5 Woodman (1998) 175.

6 For Latin terms for ‘prostitute’ see Adams (1983).

7 Woodman (1998) 175–76.

8 We cite the translation of Guy Lee, Horace: Odes & Carmen Saeculare, with an English version in the original metres, introduction and notes, Leeds 1998.

9 Woodman (1998) 181.

10 Woodman (1998) 184 further draws attention that Cleopatra’s last Roman lover, Mark Antony – a distant ancestor of Nero no less! – was accused by Cicero of a homosexual marriage ‘in very similar terms to those used by Tacitus about Nero’: see Philippic 2.44.

11 The most recent study of the Roman wedding is Hersch (2010).

12 Santoro L’Hoir (2006) 248.

adquiro, -ere, -quisivi, -quisitum: I win

perinde: as

struo, -ere, struxi, structum: I set up

convivium, -ii, n.: banquet

celeber, -bris, -bre (+ abl.): (here) celebrated for

luxus, -us, m.: luxury

epulae, -arum, f.pl.: banquet

prodigentia, -ae, f.: extravagance, ‘prodigality’

stagnum, -i, n.: lake

fabricor, -ari, -atus sum: I construct

ratis, -is, f.: raft, ship

tractus, -us, m.: towing

ebur, eboris, n.: ivory

distinctus, -a, -um: embellished

remex, -igis, m.: rower

exoletus, -a, -um: degenerate, perverted [ppp of exolesco, -ere]

volucris, -is, m.: bird

fera, -ae, f.: wild beast

abusque (+ abl.): all the way from

crepido, -inis, f.: bank, quayside

lupanar, -aris, n.: brothel

inlustris, -e: noble

completus, -a, -um (+ abl.): filled with

scortum, -i, n.: (low-class) prostitute, whore

visor, -i, visus sum: (here) I am on view

gestus, -us, m.: gesture

obscenus, -a, -um: filthy

iuxta: nearby

nemus, -oris, n.: grove

circumiectus, -a, -um: surrounding

consono, -are, -ui: I resound

claresco, -ere, -ui: I shine

(in)licitus, -a, -um: (un)lawful

foedo, -are, -avi, -atum: I defile, pollute

flagitium, -ii, n.: outrage, abomination

corruptus, -a, -um: depraved

contaminatus, -a, -um: perverted (contaminati, m.pl. = perverts)

grex, gregis, m.: herd

in modum (+ gen.): in the manner of

coniugium, -ii, n.: marriage

denubo, -ere, -psi, -ptum (+ dat.): I marry (of a woman marrying a man)

indo, -ere, -didi, -ditum: I put on

flammeum, -i, n.: bridal veil

auspex, -icis, m.: soothsayer

dos, dotis, f.: dowry

genialis torus, -i, m.: marriage bed

(nuptialis) fax, facis, f.: (wedding) torch

operio, -ire, operui, opertum: I hide

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Suggested Citation

Mathew Owen and Ingo Gildenhard, Tacitus, Annals, 15.20–23, 33–45. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-78374-003-1. DCC edition, 2016. http://dcc.dickinson.edu/tacitus-annals/15-37