[1] Ōlim quidem nōn modo praetor aut cōnsul sed prīvātī etiam mittēbantur quī prōvinciās vīserent et quid dē cuiusque obsequiō vidērētur referrent; trepidābantque gentēs dē aestimātiōne singulōrum: at nunc colimus externōs et adūlāmur, et quō modo ad nūtum alicuius grātēs, ita prōmptius accūsātiō dēcernitur. [2] dēcernāturque et maneat prōvinciālibus potentiam suam tālī modō ostentandī: sed laus falsā et precibus expressa perinde cohibeātur quam malitia, quam crūdēlitās. [3] plūra saepe peccantur, dum dēmerēmur quam dum offendimus. quaedam immō virtūtēs odiō sunt, sevēritās obstināta, invictus adversum grātiam animus. [4] inde initia magistrātuum nostrōrum meliōrā fermē et fīnis inclīnat, dum in modum candidātōrum suffrāgia conquīrimus: quae sī arceantur, aequābilius atque cōnstantius prōvinciae regentur. nam ut metū repetundārum īnfrācta avāritia est, ita vetita grātiārum āctiōne ambitiō cohibēbitur.



Thrasea proceeds by drawing a sharp contrast between ‘back then’ (olim) and ‘nowadays’ (nunc). Word order underscores the strength of feeling: the key adverbs [full essay]

Study Questions


  • privati: to what does this refer?
  • Explain the mood of viserent and referrent.
  • Discuss the contrast Thrasea draws between olim and nunc: what has changed?


  • Explain the mood of decernatur, maneat, and cohibeatur.
  • What type of verb is ostento (whence ostentandi)?
  • Why does Thrasea regard dishonest praise (laus falsa) as worse than malice (malitia) and cruelty (crudelitas)? Do you agree?


  • Explain the syntax and analyse the design of severitas obstinata, invictus adversum gratiam animus.


  • aequabilius atque constantius: the phrase recalls a passage in Sallust (cited in the commentary). Briefly discuss the effect of this literary echo.
  • Explain the significance of the moods and tenses of regentur and cohibebitur.

Stylistic Appreciation:

Look back over the entirety of Thrasea’s speech (usu ... cohibebitur, 20.3 – 21.4). How does Tacitus make this a powerful piece of persuasive oratory?

Discussion Point:

Is Thrasea right that some virtues inspire hatred? Can you think of instances when this point has been made, or ought to have been made, to our leaders today? What do you make of Thrasea’s scorn for those who seek popularity ‘like electoral candidates’? What does it tell us about Thrasea? He seems to link the pursuit of popular approval with instability and poor governance: does he have a point? (You could consider this from a modern perspective, or from that of first-century Rome at the head of an empire.)

21.1 non modo praetor aut consul sed privati etiam mittebantur: Thrasea claims here that in the olden days not just high-ranking officials but even privati (citizens without office or imperium) were dispatched to run affairs abroad. He is here using privatus in the technical ‘republican’ sense, i.e. ‘non-office holder.’ In the early empire, privatus became (also) an antonym of princeps – i.e. it could be used to refer to any Roman (including high magistrates) as opposed to the emperor. Commentators see in Thrasea’s gesture to republican times a reference to the so-called legatio libera. The term referred to the senatorial privilege of travelling at public expense (like a legate) to look after their personal interests without the requirement of taking on civic duties. Provincials were expected to entertain and support such travellers like a Roman official on public business and bitterly complained about this additional burden. Cicero, for one, tried (unsuccessfully) to outlaw this practice.2 There were, then, good reasons why provincials feared these ‘legates’ – not because they represented Roman law and order (as Thrasea intimates), but because they constituted a particularly insidious form of provincial exploitation. Note also that Thrasea misrepresents the practice: these ‘legates’ were not ‘sent’ by the senate – they received a special privilege to go. The distortions and the hyperbole – both clearly conducive to Thrasea’s argument – raise interesting questions about his character (and Tacitus’ use of characterization). Are we to imagine Thrasea deliberately deviating from the truth to further his case? Or would he and his audience (perhaps even Tacitus?) share a somewhat inaccurate and certainly nostalgic conception of republican times?

qui provincias viserent et quid de cuiusque obsequio videretur referrent: The verbs of the relative clause – viserent and referrent – are in the subjunctive, indicating purpose: these people, Thrasea claims (incorrectly: see previous note), were sent in order to inspect and report. What did they report on? Thrasea supplies the answer in the indirect question (hence the subjunctive) quid ... videretur. video in the passive with neuter pronoun as subject means ‘to seem good, right, proper’, so in essence, these Roman visitors issued reports on ‘what seemed proper about the obedience of each individual.’ There is an insidious, subjective touch to videretur: videri, in the sense ‘to seem’, presupposes the eye of a beholder to whom something appears to be the case without it necessarily being the case, and the verb therefore routinely takes a dative of a person whose perspective is at issue. Thrasea could have added eis but leaves it out, generating a wrong impression of objectivity.

cuiusque: The word makes clear that Thrasea imagines the inspection and reporting to have been far-reaching, extending to every single provincial – a hyperbole bordering on the absurd. It evokes association of Hesiod’s droves of immortals who walk the earth in disguise and report on the conduct of humans (Works & Days 252–55) or the prologue of Plautus’ Rudens, where the minor divinity Arcturus develops a ‘Big Jupiter is watching you’ theology – or, indeed, modern totalitarian regimes and their systems of mass-surveillance.

trepidabantque gentes de aestimatione singulorum: The -que, so rare in Thrasea’s speech, links mittebantur (cause) and trepidabant (effect) particularly tightly. The overall design is chiastic – subject (praetor, consul, privati) verb (mittebantur) :: verb (trepidabant) subject (gentes) – which results in the emphatic placement of trepidabant at the beginning of the second main clause and underscores the dynamic of ‘cause and effect.’ The contrast between gentes (entire nations) and singulorum (individuals) brings out the power individual magistrates were able to exercise in the old days. aestimatio here seems to refer to a general ‘assessment’ or ‘appraisal’, but it is also a technical term in law, where it refers specifically to the assessment of damages and their pecuniary value, the insidious implication being that any aestimatio by any Roman will cost Rome’s subject people – dearly.

colimus externos et adulamur: Thrasea pleonastically uses two verbs with almost identical meanings (‘we court and flatter’) to lay on thick the weakness and cravenness of modern officials, which reflects badly on the entire ruling élite (Thrasea implicates himself and everyone else present by switching into the first person plural). There is a note of contempt here, especially in the word externos (‘foreigners’).

quo modo ad nutum alicuius grates, ita promptius accusatio decernitur: A highly condensed mode of expression. Written out in full, the sentence would run: quo modo ad nutum alicuius [provincialis] grates [a provincialibus decernuntur], ita promptius accusatio [a provincialibus] decernitur. Although Timarchus’ ‘crime’ was to claim control over votes of thanks, Thrasea frightens the senators by pointing out that perversely empowered provincials are even quicker (promptius) to press charges against Roman officials than to decree votes of thanks – only to frustrate expectations in the following sentence.

21.2 decernaturque: Thrasea is again elliptical: to complete the first phrase, one needs to supply accusatio from the previous sentence. The mood is subjunctive. The present subjunctive can be used in the third person to give orders (‘jussive subjunctive’), here translating as ‘let it [sc. an accusation] be decreed.’

et maneat provincialibus potentiam suam tali modo ostentandi: The syntax here is rather unusual: the genitive of the gerund (ostentandi), which takes potentiam suam as accusative object, lacks a noun on which it depends and one might have expected an infinitive instead. This is, however, not the only place in the Annals where this construction occurs: Tacitus also uses it at 15.5 (vitandi) and 13.26 (retinendi). As Miller points out, ‘it is extremely unlikely that in all three instances the same odd construction has been caused by the same accident of textual transmission. It is more probably an example of Tacitean experimentation with language’ – in this case the blurring between the use of the gerund and the infinitive.3 The potentia refers specifically to the last thing Thrasea had mentioned, i.e. the power of provincials to charge Roman officials with maladministration. He argues that the provincials should still be able to bring cases against corrupt governors; what must be stopped (as he goes on to argue) are the false or corrupt votes of thanks. The verb ostento (another frequentative) carries the idea of parading or showing off and suggests that Thrasea considers the powers he would like the provincials to retain rather inconsequential. There is a mocking tone to his concession: the ‘potentia’ of the provincials does not amount to much. (For Tacitus on real power vs pomp and show, see 15.31: ... inania tramittuntur.)

sed laus falsa et precibus expressa perinde cohibeatur quam malitia, quam crudelitas: Thrasea falls back into asyndetic mode – here reinforced by the anaphora of quam: quam malitia, quam crudelitas – to proclaim his counterintuitive conviction that contrived praise is as much in need of policing as (perinde ... quam = as much as) malitia (‘wickedness’) and crudelitas (‘cruelty’). The elegant simplicity of quam malitia, quam crudelitas (which come with the force of punches to the face) contrasts with the slightly contorted expression laus falsa et precibus expressa, in the course of which laus, a positive notion, comes gradually undone. The first attribute (falsa) seems to refer to provincials ‘selling’ their votes of thanksgiving, whereas the second attribute (precibus expressa – from exprimere ‘to squeeze out’) refers to Roman governors extorting votes of thanksgiving from their provincial subjects. Either form of ‘praise’ is morally corrupt and potentially the result of cruel behaviour. The assimilation of laus to malitia and crudelitas conjures a world of rampant immorality in which key ethical and semantic distinctions have broken down.

21.3 plura saepe peccantur, dum demeremur quam dum offendimus: This aphoristic phrase sums up Thrasea’s attitude to provincial government. Paradoxically, he claims that trying to win favour frequently amounts to a greater crime than causing offence. The sequence peccanturdemeremuroffendimus is climactic: we begin with an impersonal passive, move on to the 1st person plural of a deponent (demeremur), and end up with offendimus, which is active in form and meaning. The alliteration of p and d and the neat antithesis in dum demeremur quam dum offendimus, stressed by the anaphora of dum, also help to make this remark shine.

quaedam immo virtutes odio sunt: The word immo (here unusually placed second) puts a novel, corrective spin on the preceding sentence. It explains why causing offence – an apparent negative – ought not to be considered a cause for concern. Even certain positive qualities (virtutes) trigger hatred.

severitas obstinata, invictus adversus gratiam animus: The phrase stands in apposition to virtutes, indicating two examples of just such excellent if unpopular qualities. The overall design is a majestic chiasmus – noun (severitas) + attribute (obstinata) :: attribute (invictus) + noun (animus) – that comes with three special twists: (i) Thrasea again puts on display his aversion to connectives: the two virtutes are listed one after the other, asyndetically. (ii) The overall arrangement is climactic both in quantitative and thematic terms: the second half is significantly longer because invictus, the attribute of animus, is in predicative position and governs the additional phrase adversus gratiam; and there is an increase in intensity from obstinata (‘resolute’) to invictus, which signifies an even higher degree of determination and resolve than obstinatus: the subtle military metaphor makes the evocation of a strong, incorruptible Roman mind especially arresting. (Note that as gloss on Greek amachos (‘unconquerable’) invictus means ‘invinc-ible’, so it only appears to match the past participle obstinata.) Thrasea invokes a mindset so firm of purpose that no attempt to curry favour has any effect. (iii) He twists standard Latin word order out of shape: usually, adjectives in attributive position indicating degree (such as obstinata) come before the noun they modify, whereas adjectives in predicative position (as is the case with invictus here) come after the noun they modify. Overall, the expression evokes the moral discourse of republican Rome and, more specifically, Sallustian idiom: see Bellum Iugurthinum 43.5 (...quod adversum divitias invictum animum gerebat), cited in full above at 20.3.

21.4 inde initia magistratuum nostrorum meliora ferme et finis inclinat: The word inde (‘in consequence’) continues Thrasea’s claim that certain excellent qualities (virtutes) such as a strict resolve and a mind steeled against attempts at ingratiation are liable to incur hatred. The line of reasoning here seems to be as follows: the majority (cf. ferme) of Roman magistrates approach their term in office with sound ethics but a feeble disposition; they start out governing with obstinata severitas and rejecting anyone trying to curry favour (hence initia ... meliora) – only to encounter resistance or hatred; unable to endure being the source and target of negative emotions, they let themselves be corrupted towards the end. The ellipsis of a verb in the first half (literally, ‘the beginnings of our magistracies [sc. are] generally better’) seems to enact the sense of the early promise quickly slipping away; it also reinforces the antithesis between initia and finis. For someone as reluctant to waste time on connectives as Thrasea, his use of et, which oddly correlates a verb omitted (sunt) with the one main verb in the sentence (inclinat), stands out. The sentence bubbles with sound effects, especially the alliteration and homoioteleuton of i, m and f (see the underlining) all drawing the listeners’ attention to the speaker’s diagnosis of Rome’s political ills. Note also the long, seven-word build up with those resounding polysyllables, and then the simple, self-enacting, anticlimactic finis inclinat.

dum in modum candidatorum suffragia conquirimus: A suffragium is a vote cast in an assembly (for a candidate, resolution, or such like), and the phrase suffragia conquirere refers to the canvassing of votes – a common occurrence before elections. In the context of provincial administration, however, Thrasea presents the practice as demeaning and distinctly undesirable: governors ought not to behave like candidates for political office chasing the popular vote. By using the first person plural (conquirimus) Thrasea suggests that it is not just the reputation of the individual miscreant that is at issue here but that of the entire senate (with one implication being: we, sc. you, have all done it!): governors represent Rome’s ruling élite as a whole, and the behaviour of one reflects on everyone else.

quae si arceantur, aequabilius atque constantius provinciae regentur: quae is a connecting relative (= ea) and refers back to the practice of courting favour with provincials to receive a vote of thanks. Thrasea here switches from moral indictment to asserting the tangible benefits of his proposed measure: if governors refrain from canvassing or buying votes, the provinces will be run better and more consistently. Note the use of moods: we get a potential subjunctive in the protasis (arceantur), and a future indicative in the apodosis (regentur: the provinces will be run...). If the appropriate measures are taken, so Thrasea seems to suggest, then the desired outcome is not in doubt: it will not just kick in potentially, but with certainty. (In other words, it should be a no-brainer.)

aequabilius atque constantius: The phrase is strongly reminiscent of a passage in Sallust. See Bellum Catilinae 2.3–4:

Quodsi regum atque imperatorum animi virtus in pace ita ut in bello valeret, aequabilius atque constantius sese res humanae haberent, neque aliud alio ferri neque mutari ac misceri omnia cerneres. Nam imperium facile eis artibus retinetur quibus initio partum est.

[Now if the mental excellence with which kings and rulers are endowed were as potent in peace as in war, human affairs would run an evener and steadier course, and you would not see power passing from hand to hand and everything in turmoil and confusion; for empire is easily retained by the qualities by which it was first won.]

The two passages share a number of parallels: in each case, the matter at issue is the mental disposition of those in power in a time of peace. The construction – a conditional sequence – is the same (though note that Sallust uses a present counterfactual). And both authors trace a similar trajectory from positive beginnings to eventual decline. Syme suggests that the Sallustian idiom lends support to Thrasea Paetus’ mission to ‘recall ancient dignity in an oration defending the honour of the senatorial order.’4 To reinforce the Sallustian ring of the phrase, Thrasea for once even suspends his dislike of connectives and uses a rare atque.

metu repetundarum infracta avaritia est: Thrasea abbreviates: metu repetundarum stands for metu pecuniarum repetundarum or metu quaestionis repetundarum. pecuniae repetundae was a technical legal term meaning ‘the recovery of extorted money’, but pecuniae is often omitted. The quaestio de repetundis (the Roman extortion court) was the first permanent criminal court or tribunal in Rome, established in 149 BC by the lex Calpurnia (mentioned above) to try cases of extortion by provincial governors. Thrasea’s (blatantly disingenuous) claim that these courts had defeated officials’ greed is stressed by the vivid verb infracta ... est and by the position of avaritia inside the components of the verb – a design that seems to enact the crushing of the greed.

vetita gratiarum actione ambitio cohibebitur: In fine style, Thrasea finishes with a succinct summary of his proposal: ban votes of thanks (the ablative absolute vetita ... actione replaces a conditional clause) and corruption will end (the future here follows the same confident logic as regentur above).


1 Rudich (1993) 77.

2 Kolb (2000) 36–7.

3 Miller (1973) 52.

4 Syme (1958) 354.

privatus, -i, m.: private citizen

viso, -ere, visi, visum: I visit

obsequium, -ii, n.: obedience, loyalty

trepido, -are, -avi, -atum (de): I tremble (at)

aestimatio, -onis, f.: judgment

singulus, -i, m.: individual

colo, -ere, colui, cultum: I court, pander to

externus, -i, m.: foreigner

adulor, -ari, -atus sum: I flatter

nutus, -us, m.: nod

grates, -ium f. pl.: votes of thanks

ostento, -are, -avi, -atum: I demonstrate, show off

prex, precis, f.: plea, prayer

exprimo, -ere, -pressi, -pressum: I exact, squeeze out

perinde ... quam...: as much as

cohibeo, -ere, -ui, -itum: I restrict

malitia, -ae, f.: wickedness, malice

pecco, -are, -avi, -atum: I commit an offence, do wrong

demereor, -eri, -itus sum: I oblige

immo: in fact

severitas, -atis, f.: strictness

obstinatus, -a, -um: stubborn

gratia, -ae, f.: (here) favour

inde: in consequence

magistratus, -us, m.: magistracy, period of office

ferme: (here) usually

inclino, -are, -avi, -atum: I go down hill

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

suffragium, -ii, n.: vote

conquiro, -ere, -quisivi, -quisitum: I seek after

arceo, -ere, -cui, -ctum: I keep at bay

aequabilis, -e: consistent

constans, -antis: steady

repetundae (sc. pecuniae): money or other things that are to be restored

from repeto: ‘I demand back’

infrango, -ere, -fregi, -fractum: I crush

avaritia, -ae, f.: greed

gratiarum actio, -onis, f.: vote of thanks

ambitio, -onis, f.: currying of favour

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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. https://dcc.dickinson.edu/tacitus-annals/15-21