Magnō adsēnsū celebrāta sententia. nōn tamen senātūs cōnsultum perficī potuit, abnuentibus cōnsulibus ea dē rē relātum. mox auctōre prīncipe sānxēre nē quis ad concilium sociōrum referret agendās apud senātum prō praetōribus prōve cōnsulibus grātēs, neu quis eā lēgātiōne fungerētur.  īsdem cōnsulibus gymnasium ictū fulminis cōnflagrāvit effigiēsque in eō Nerōnis ad īnfōrme aes liquefacta. et mōtū terrae celebre Campāniae oppidum Pompēī magnā ex parte prōruit; dēfūnctaque virgō Vestālis Laelia, in cuius locum Cornēlia ex familiā Cossōrum capta est.
- What construction is abnuentibus consulibus?
- With reference to the Introduction, Section 6 (on Thrasea Paetus), consider why the consuls are disinclined to let Thrasea’s proposal be put to the vote.
- What was the concilium sociorum?
- Why is referret in the subjunctive?
- isdem consulibus: suggest an idiomatic translation for this phrase.
- gymnasium: what is this, and what connotations does such a building have? (You may wish to include consideration of the etymology of gymnasium in your answer.)
- Try reading out loud effigiesque in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta. What do you think Tacitus’ tone of voice would be like?
- Who were the Cornelii Cossi?
How does Tacitus add colour to his account of the end of the year in this little chapter?
What do you make of the ‘ominous’ destruction of Nero’s Gymnasium and his effigy within? Why does Tacitus include this detail? Does he take this to be a sign of divine judgment? Do you think there is a place for ‘prodigies’ such as this in the writing of history? What are the forces that modern historians appeal to in order to impose meaningful patterns upon (amorphous) historical time?
22.1 magno adsensu celebrata [sc. est] sententia: The ellipsis of est gives the impression of a pithy parallelism, with two phrases in which an attribute (magno, celebrata) is followed by a noun (adsensu, sententia). The use of the passive both here and in the following sentence keeps Thrasea in the limelight. The other senators remain an anonymous collective. And the meaningful/meaningless round of applause rings out hollow here to celebrate a stand-out tableau – nailing Tacitus’ equivalent of the ‘Cretan liar’ paradox to imperial Rome.
non tamen senatus consultum perfici potuit abnuentibus consulibus ea de re relatum [sc. esse]: The subject of the sentence is consultum, modified by senatus in the genitive. A ‘resolution of the senate’ was not technically speaking a law, but it had the force of law, especially in foreign and provincial affairs. Here it did not come to pass since the consuls, who presided over the proceedings, intervened. The ablative absolute abnuentibus consulibus has causal force, with abnuentibus introducing an indirect statement, with the infinitive again in the passive: relatum, sc. esse. The consuls P. Marius and L. Afinius object to an actual resolution on formal grounds: the matter before the senate was whether Timarchus was guilty or not, and Thrasea had used the occasion to scrutinize key principles of provincial government. This part of his argument was extra causam, and while it received the enthusiastic support of the majority of senators, the consuls were wary to add new items, especially those of far-reaching consequences, to the official agenda ad hoc since they had not yet been able to check whether they had the support of the emperor. And this particular proposal came from Thrasea, who had already upset the emperor on previous occasions with his independence. More specifically, the passage here harks back to the incident with which Tacitus begins his account of the year 62: the maiestas-trial of the praetor Antistius at 14.48–49 (cited and discussed in the Introduction, Section 6). Just as the two speeches by Thrasea mirror each other, so does the reaction of the presiding consuls. Their negative intervention here recalls their reaction at 14.49: at consules, perficere decretum senatus non ausi, de consensu scripsere Caesari (‘The consuls, however, not venturing to complete the senatorial decree in form, wrote to the emperor and stated the opinion of the meeting’). The scenario affords us telling insights into the workings of the imperial system, and the interrelation of power and character. Thrasea speaks his mind, without regard for the consequences. The moral majority retains its protective anonymity but can be fired up. The consuls, who are ultimately responsible, don’t want to stick their necks out. Thrasea does not care what the princeps thinks or how he may react; for almost everyone else the mind and disposition of the emperor is the yardstick for their own thoughts and actions. The historian knows that traditional forms of good governance always hand officials tools to block unwelcome reform; in the Caesars’ Rome, at any rate, Tacitus shows, the public pageant of government was pure rigmarole.
mox auctore principe...: In this case there is no hint that Nero felt slighted by Thrasea’s proposal; instead, he himself put forward such a motion soon afterwards. The temporal adverb mox presumably refers to a point in time in the same year (AD 62). Rudich even argues that Thrasea’s proposal played into Nero’s hands and interprets the reluctance of the consuls to have the motion passed differently: ‘It is no accident that the consuls were reluctant to promulgate Thrasea Paetus’ motion to abolish provincial thanksgivings..., while Nero, on the other hand, approved it. Though it was intended to oppose imperial adulatio, the emperor was exploiting Thrasea Paetus’ move for the opposite purpose, that is, of depriving the Senate of another fraction of its political prestige.’1 We have suggested a somewhat different explanation for the consuls’ hesitation. And Rudich’s reading leaves open the question as to why Thrasea’s proposal received the enthusiastic support of the senate. What do you think is going on? And does your Tacitus want us to fathom, to wonder, or to flounder?
sanxere: (= sanxerunt, i.e. the senators). In AD 11, Augustus had passed a law that stipulated an interval of 60 days between the end of a governor’s tenure and the proposal of a vote of thanks. See Cassius Dio 56.25.6: ‘He also issued a proclamation to the subject nations forbidding them to bestow any honours upon a person assigned to govern them either during his term of office or within sixty days after his departure; this was because some governors by arranging beforehand for testimonials and eulogies from their subjects were causing much mischief.’ Now Nero’s proposal aimed to ban the practice altogether. It is not entirely clear whether his measure was effective, ineffectual to begin with, or fell into abeyance after a while.
ne quis ... referret agendas apud senatum ... grates, neu quis ea legatione fungeretur: After votes of thanks were made in the council, a delegation was sent to Rome to report it to the senate. The law aimed to end both aspects of this practice (i.e. the voting of thanks and the dispatch of a delegation). The sentence has an air of formality and may well be modelled on the language of the decree itself. referret introduces an indirect statement with agendas [sc. esse] as verb and grates as subject accusative.
ne quis ... neu quis: quis = aliquis. (‘After si, nisi, num and ne, | ali- goes away.’)2
concilium sociorum: This institution, which had Hellenistic and republican precedents, came into its own under Augustus, as an important site of communication between the centre of imperial power in Rome and the provinces: ‘in each province, the altar to Rome and Augustus provided an official cult centre, and its service provided an occasion for assembly. The concilium met, usually, once a year, and after the rites discussed any business that concerned the province. Any formal expressions of thanks would be voted here, and conveyed by a delegation to the Senate.’3
pro praetoribus prove consulibus: prove = pro + the enclitic ve. pro praetoribus refers to the legati Augusti pro praetore who governed the imperial provinces (‘propraetorian governors of the emperor’); pro consulibus refers to the governors of senatorial provinces, who since the time of Augustus all carried the title of proconsuls: see e.g. Suetonius, Augustus 47. The normal formulation would have been the inverse, i.e. proconsul legatusve.4 The passage is a good example of what Syme has diagnosed as one of the perversities of Tacitean style: ‘The terminology of the Roman administration was awkward or monotonous. Tacitus varies or evades it. ... he will go to any lengths or contortions rather than denominate the governor of an imperial province by the exact title.’5 Tacitus means to press, to expose, all official language for its emptiness, inanity, fantasy.
(ii) 22.2: Review of striking prodigies that occurred in the year AD 62.
22.2 isdem consulibus: The name of the consuls is one – but no longer the power-indicator – dating system available in imperial Rome.
gymnasium ictu fulminis conflagravit effigiesque in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta: For the Neronia, a quinquennial festival along the model of the Greek Olympic Games first celebrated in AD 60 (Tacitus covers it at Annals 14.20–21, which we cite and discuss below), Nero had built the first public gymnasium in Rome. Tacitus mentions its dedication at the very end of his account of AD 61 (14.47): gymnasium eo anno dedicatum a Nerone praebitumque oleum equiti ac senatui Graeca facilitate (‘In the course of the year, Nero consecrated a gymnasium, oil being supplied to the equestrian and senatorial orders – a Greek form of liberality’).6 The slippage from AD 60 to AD 61 merits some comments. Griffin uses Ann. 14.47 as evidence that ‘in 61 he [sc. Nero] dedicated his new public baths in Rome, a complex that included a gymnasium. He marked the occasion by a free distribution of oil to senators and equites, who were clearly meant to be attracted to athletics by the free offer’ – but acknowledges in an endnote that our other sources have the gymnasium, and in the case of Suetonius, also the baths, dedicated and in use during the Neronia in AD 60.7 To fix the clash, she suggests that ‘it is possible that Tacitus’ date refers to the dedication of the whole complex, the gymnasium alone being finished by the Neronia.’8 But this is hardly compelling given that Tacitus, unlike Suetonius, does not even mention the baths at 14.47: he only speaks of the dedication of the gymnasium. Perhaps something else entirely is going on: could Tacitus have slyly shifted the date of the dedication of the gymnasium back a year so that he could correlate the endings of his accounts of AD 61 (14.47) and AD 62 (15.22)? Has the desire for a suggestive artistic design here overruled the principle of chronological accuracy?
The term gymnasium itself, at any rate, is a loanword from the Greek (γυμνάσιον/ gymnasion, a place where one stripped to train ‘naked’, or γυμνός/ gymnos in Greek). As the name suggests, it was a quintessentially Greek institution – a place for athletic exercise (in particular wrestling), communal bathing, and other leisure pursuits (such as philosophy). Our sources suggest that Nero himself fancied a career as a wrestler – linked to his sponsorship of gymnasia: ‘his interest in pursuing a somewhat less dangerous career [than fighting as a gladiator] in wrestling is well attested. He certainly built gymnasia at Rome, Baiae, and Naples; wrestlers competed at his Neronia; he enjoyed watching them in Naples; and he actually employed court wrestlers, luctatores auli. Contemporary rumor had it that he intended himself to compete in the next Olympic Games among the athletes, for he wrestled constantly and watched gymnastic contests throughout Greece...’9
Tacitus mentions the occurrence without commentary, but there was little need for one. In part, the structure of his narrative provides an eloquent interpretation: it is hardly coincidental that he should have concluded his account of AD 61 with the dedication of the gymnasium by Nero and his account of AD 62 with instances of divine wrath directed against the building and the statue of the emperor contained therein. The artful design that ensues stands out even more clearly if we recall that the mention of Nero’s dedication of the gymnasium comes right after the obituary for Memmius Regulus (consul of 31) and that the paragraph that follows the meltdown of the statue begins with the consulship of his son (also named Memmius Regulus). Tacitus thus chiastically interrelates the end of 61, the end of 62, and the beginning of 63:
End of 61: obituary of Memmius Regulus pater (14.47: cited below); dedication of Nero’s gymnasium (14.47).
End of 62: conflagration of Nero’s gymnasium (15.22); beginning of 63: reference to the consulship of Memmius Regulus filius (15.23).
Tacitus thus twins the abomination and disaster of the imperial court – Nero is the last scion of the Julio-Claudian dynasty – with an image of continuity in the form of republican lineage.
effigiesque in eo Neronis ad informe aes liquefacta: Statues of emperors (and other members of the imperial family or household) were ubiquitous in imperial Rome. They ensured the visual presence of the princeps in a wide variety of settings, raised the represented figure above the status of ordinary mortals, and more generally constituted an important medium for projecting an image of the reigning princeps to different social groups within the empire: ‘Representations of Roman emperors and empresses crafted in marble or bronze functioned as surrogates for real imperial bodies, artistic evocations of the imperial presence that were replicated and disseminated everywhere in the Empire. Just as the corporeal being of the emperor, as supreme ruler of the Mediterranean, was endowed with his divine essence or genius, and came to be elevated conceptually above the bodies of his subjects, so too imperial images were conceived differently from those of private individuals. Unlike most of their subjects, the emperor or empress could exist as effigies in multiple bodies that took the form of portrait statues populating every kind of Roman environment such as fora, basilicae, temples, baths, military camps and houses.’10 The quotation comes from an article with the title ‘Execution in Effigy: Severed Heads and Decapitated Statues in Imperial Rome’, which focuses on the destruction of statuary after the death of an emperor. New principes, especially if they belonged to a different dynasty, tended systematically to do away with the artistic representations of their predecessors. The melting-down of Nero’s likeness constitutes a divine anticipation of the iconoclasm that lay in store for his images upon his death. Divine displeasure at the Hellenizing shenanigans of the emperor could not have been articulated more clearly. There is no better way to portend Nero’s sticky end than the complete destruction of the statue. One captures a sense of satisfaction in the extreme formulation ad informe aes – Tacitus clearly enjoys the image of golden-boy Nero’s statue being melted down into a shapeless lump as a result of the conflagration. The lightning bolt is the hallmark of Jupiter: so this message comes from the top.
et motu terrae celebre Campaniae oppidum Pompei magna ex parte proruit: Pompe(i)i, ~orum is a second declension masculine plural noun, here standing in apposition to celebre Campaniae oppidum, the subject of the sentence. This earthquake, which Seneca, in his Natural Histories 6.1.2, dates to AD 63, predated the famous eruption of Vesuvius in 79 during the reign of Titus, which totally destroyed Pompeii and the neighbouring city of Herculaneum. Hence there is a proleptic point in magna ex parte: Tacitus and his readers would of course have read this passage with the later catastrophe in mind, turning the earthquake mentioned here into an ominous prefiguration of greater evil to come, though not specifically related to the reign of Nero (but easily relatable to the imminent fall of the first dynasty of Caesars). Seismic activity has natural causes but frequently features the same temporal logic as prodigies, insofar as a minor tremor or eruption – at times many years in advance – is then followed by a cataclysmic outbreak. Likewise, prodigies constituted a preliminary indication of divine displeasure that issued a warning of an imminent disaster (but also afforded a precious window of opportunity to make amends, appease the gods, and thus avert it). The Romans understood extreme natural events as divinely motivated signs, but were unaware of – or refused to believe in – the ineluctability of natural disasters such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions; they preferred to invest in the conviction that proper communication with the gods constituted some safeguard against crises and chaos. But is that so different from contemporary religious creeds?
magna ex parte proruit: The scale of the destruction was already immense and hints at the violence of the quake.
defunctaque virgo Vestalis Laelia: The Vestal Virgins (six at any one time, who, upon entering the college, took a vow of chastity and stayed in position for thirty years or until they died) were priestesses of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth. Devoted in the main to the cultivation of the sacred fire, which was not supposed to go out since it symbolized the eternity of the Roman state, they were associated with the well-being of the Roman commonwealth and its continuity in time. Any change in personnel owing to a premature death or other event affecting the smooth functioning of the college therefore amounted to an affair of state. Laelia was perhaps the daughter of D. Laelius Balbus.11
in cuius locum Cornelia ex familia Cossorum capta est: Candidates for the priesthood, girls between 6 and 12 years of age, were offered by their families for the honour. When they were selected by the chief priest (Pontifex Maximus), he said, ‘te, Amata, capio’ (I take you, beloved one): this is the reason for the verb here.12 The Cornelia in question might have been the daughter of Cornelius Cossus, one of the consuls of AD 60.13 Tacitus’ readers would know her gruesome destiny. In AD 91, when she had become Vestalis maxima, the emperor Domitian had her accused of incestum (‘sexual impurity and hence profanation of the religious rites’). She was found guilty and, despite pleading her innocence, executed by being buried alive. See Suetonius, Domitian 8.4 and the harrowing account by Pliny, Letters 4.11.6–13.
The Cornelii Cossi went all the way back to the 5th century BC, i.e. the early years of republican Rome. A member of this branch of the gens Cornelia, Aulus Cornelius Cossus, was the second one of just three Roman generals ever who won the so-called spolia opima (‘rich spoils’) – the armour stripped from an opposing general after he had been killed in single combat (in Cossus’ case the king of the Etruscan town Veii, Lars Tolumnius: see Livy 4.17–20 for the details). Reflect, before reading on, that the sacred institution of the Vestal priesthood (with its impeccable republican pedigree and personnel) provided for the replenishment of its stock of girls in case of loss: you won’t find monarchy coping half so smoothly with the perils menacing its self-perpetuation.
1 Rudich (1993) 77.
2 We owe this jingle to George Lord.
3 Miller (1973) 71. The last monographic treatment of the concilia is Deininger (1965).
4 Koestermann (1968) 203.
5 Syme (1958) I 343–44.
6 Griffin (1984) 44 with page 247 n. 44.
7 See Cassius Dio 61.21.2 and Suetonius, Nero 12.3: Instituit et quinquennale certamen primus omnium Romae more Graeco triplex, musicum gymnicum equestre, quod appellavit Neronia; dedicatisque thermis atque gymnasio senatui quoque et equiti oleum praebuit (‘He was likewise the first to establish at Rome a quinquennial contest in three parts, after the Greek fashion, that is in music, athletics, and riding, which he called the Neronia; at the same time he dedicated his baths and gymnasium, supplying every member of the senatorial and equestrian orders with oil’).
8 Griffin (1984) 247 n. 44.
9 Champion (2003) 80.
10 Varner (2005) 67. On imperial statuary see further Vout (2007) and Gladhill (2012).
11 Laelia is Nr. 2161 in Jörg Rüpke’s compendium of all religious officials from ancient Rome of whom we have any record. See Rüpke (2008).
12 See Wildfang (2006), Ch. 3: ‘Vestal initiation – the rite of captio’.
13 Koestermann (1968) 62.
adsensus, -us, m.: agreement
celebro, -are, -avi, -atum: (here) I praise
senatus consultum, -i, n.: decree of the senate
abnuo, -ere, -nui, -nutum: I deny
auctore principe: (abl. absol.) ‘on the emperor’s authority’
sancio, -ire, sanxi, sanctum: I enact a law (sanxere = sanxerunt)
(sociorum) concilium, -ii, n.: (provincial) council
pro praetor, -oris, m.: propraetor (rank of provincial governor)
pro consul, -ulis, m.: proconsul (rank of provincial governor)
legatio, -onis, f.: delegation
fungor, -i, functus sum (+ abl.): I carry out
fulmen, -inis, n.: lightning
ictus, -us, m.: strike
conflagro, -are, -avi, -atum: I burst into flames
effigies, -ei, f.: statue, effigy
informis, -e: shapeless
aes, aeris, n.: bronze
liquefacio, -ere, -feci, -factum: I melt
motus terrae, motus terrae, m.: earthquake
celeber, -bris, -bre: populous
Campania, -ae, f.: Campania (region of Italy)
Pompei, -orum, m.pl.: Pompeii
magna ex parte: to a great extent
proruo, -ere, -rui, -rutum: I collapse, am demolished
defungor, -i, -functus sum I die
virgo Vestalis, virginis Vestalis, f.: Vestal Virgin
Cossi, -orum, m.pl.: the Cossi (a Roman family)
capio, -ere, cepi, captum: (here) I appoint