A look at the kind of creatures that populate Nero’s court

– and the killing of an alleged rival

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?

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