C. Laecaniō M. Liciniō cōnsulibus ācriōre in diēs cupīdine adigēbātur Nerō prōmiscās scaenās frequentandī: nam adhūc per domum aut hortōs cecinerat Iuvenālibus lūdīs, quōs ut parum celebrēs et tantae vōcī angustōs spernēbat.  nōn tamen Rōmae incipere ausus Neāpolim quasi Graecam urbem dēlēgit: inde initium fore ut trānsgressus in Achāiam īnsignēsque et antīquitus sacrās corōnās adeptus maiōre fāmā studia cīvium ēliceret.  ergō contractum oppidānōrum vulgus, et quōs ē proximīs colōniīs et mūnicipiīs eius reī fāma accīverat, quīque Caesarem per honōrem aut variōs ūsūs sectantur, etiam mīlitum manipulī, theātrum Neāpolītānōrum complent.
As John Henderson points out to us, this paragraph initiates a narrative stretch in which a rhythmic pattern of ‘ins-and-outs’ (or ‘es and ads’) bursts out all over through the to-and-fro of the. . . [full essay]
- What type of ablative is cupidine?
- Parse cecinerat.
- Neapolim: briefly explain Nero’s reasoning in selecting this city for his first public performance.
- Explain the syntax of inde initium fore.
- What does the vocabulary of oppidanorum vulgus imply about these men?
- What type of verb is sectantur?
How does Tacitus’ syntax and language paint an intriguing picture of the emperor and his followers in this chapter?
The 2006 BBC series Ancient Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire claimed that aristocratic Romans’ outrage at an emperor performing on stage would be comparable to what would be felt today if the Queen became a pole-dancer. What merit is there in this comparison? What Roman prejudices emerge in this chapter? Would Tacitus’ distaste for Nero’s theatrical tendencies have been universally shared?
33.1 C. Laecanio M. Licinio consulibus: As we have seen, this is the annalistic formula that indicates the beginning of the consular year (our AD 64). Gaius Laecanius Bassus outlived Nero and died during the reign of Vespasian (Pliny, Natural Histories 26.5). Marcus Licinius Crassus Frugi, however, was indicted for treason by the delator M. Aquilius Regulus and executed by Nero. He thus followed in the footsteps of his parents, who died under Claudius.
acriore in dies cupidine adigebatur Nero promiscas scaenas frequentandi: The sentence is beautifully balanced: acriore in-dies cupidine [= 3 words] + adigebatur Nero [main verb and subject] + promiscas scaenas frequentandi [3 words]. At the same time, further syntactical aspects and relations generate the impression that Nero is carried away by disgraceful desire:
- the minor hyperbaton acriore ... cupidine, with the intervening phrase in dies generates the impression of an unstoppable escalation.
- the major hyperbaton cupidine ... promiscas scaenas frequentandi (the genitive of the gerund depends on cupidine and takes promiscas scaenas as accusative object) enmeshes and overpowers the emperor, who is caught in the middle.
- the passive verb adigebatur and the inversion of normal word order (verb – subject, rather than subject – verb) again suggests that Nero’s rational agency is compromised: he is pushed along by his desires.
- the placement of verb and subject in the middle produces a powerful climax: we first get the ever-increasing desire, then the disconcerting intelligence that it has been overpowering the emperor, and, finally, the clarification of what the desire consists in: repeated (cf. frequentandi) appearances on stage in performances open to the public (cf. promiscas).
promiscas scaenas: promiscas refers to the fact that Nero’s stage performances were now open to the public. He needed now to have indiscriminate access to the stage, no-holds-barred (cf. immodicus above).
nam adhuc per domum aut hortos cecinerat Iuvenalibus ludis, quos ut parum celebres et tantae voci angustos spernebat: Tacitus frequently supplies background information in a main clause in the pluperfect, set up by an adverb such as adhuc or iam, and followed by a subordinate clause situated in the narrative present. In terms of syntax, the sentence here recalls 23.2: iam senatus uterum Poppaeae commendaverat dis votaque publice susceperat, quae multiplicata exolutaque: (i) adverb (iam; adhuc); (ii) a main clause in the pluperfect (commendaverat, susceperat; cecinerat) providing background information; (iii) a relative clause that details actions in the narrative present (quae ... exsolutaque; quos ... spernebat). Both sentences are perfect illustrations of Tacitus’ habit of distributing information in surprising ways across main and subordinate clauses.
Iuvenalibus ludis: The reference is to the Juvenile Games that Nero celebrated in AD 59, at the occasion of his first shave as a 21-year-old. These games took place in Nero’s palace and his gardens, i.e. were not open to the general public. Special festivities at this rite of passage were unremarkable. See Cassius Dio 48.34.3 on how Caesar Octavianus celebrated the occasion: ‘For example, when Caesar now for the first time shaved off his beard, he held a magnificent entertainment himself besides granting all the other citizens a festival at public expense. He also kept his chin smooth afterwards, like the rest; for he was already beginning to be enamoured of Livia also, and for this reason divorced Scribonia the very day she bore him a daughter.’ The future emperor Augustus, of course, did not contribute to the entertainment himself.
quos ut parum celebres et tantae voci angustos spernebat: The antecedent of quos is hortos, i.e. the gardens of the imperial estate. There is irony in Tacitus’ voice as he says Nero felt these private performances did not attract the attendance figures (cf. ut parum celebres) he desired. Nero’s talents as a singer and lyre-player are often derided in our sources, and the advanced position of tantae (such a great [voice]) has a sarcastic ring to it, especially since the appraisal of his vox as tanta is focalized for us through Nero himself. The vivid adjective angustos (literally, ‘narrow’, a ludicrous descriptor of the imperial gardens) suggests Nero feels restricted by his current opportunities to perform and wants ‘more space.’ Compare the account in Suetonius, Nero 20:
Inter ceteras disciplinas pueritiae tempore imbutus et musica, statim ut imperium adeptus est, Terpnum citharoedum vigentem tunc praeter alios arcessiit diebusque continuis post cenam canenti in multam noctem assidens paulatim et ipse meditari exercerique coepit neque eorum quicquam omittere, quae generis eius artifices vel conservandae vocis causa vel augendae factitarent; sed et plumbeam chartam supinus pectore sustinere et clystere vomituque purgari et abstinere pomis cibisque officientibus; donec blandiente profectu, quamquam exiguae vocis et fuscae, prodire in scaenam concupiit, subinde inter familiares Graecum proverbium iactans occultae musicae nullum esse respectum.
[Having gained some knowledge of music in addition to the rest of his early education, as soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest master of the lyre in those days, and after listening to him sing after dinner for many successive days until late at night, he little by little began to practise himself, neglecting none of the exercises which artists of that kind are in the habit of following, to preserve or strengthen their voices. For he used to lie upon his back and hold a leaden plate on his chest, purge himself by the syringe and by vomiting, and deny himself fruits and all foods injurious to the voice. Finally encouraged by his progress, although his voice was weak and husky, he began to long to appear on the stage, and every now and then in the presence of his intimate friends he would quote a Greek proverb meaning ‘Hidden music counts for nothing.’]
33.2 Romae: A locative: ‘in Rome’.
Neapolim quasi Graecam urbem: Neapolis, modern Naples, was, as its Greek name (nea = new; polis = city, hence: ‘New City’) implies, originally a Greek foundation. The quasi here thus has causal force. Although it had long been part of Roman Italy, Neapolis seems to have retained much of its Greek character. Aristocratic norms were more flexible there, making it a more suitable place for Nero to inaugurate his career as a public performer. The antithesis between Greek and Roman is significant. Traditional Roman thinkers saw themselves as the guardians of great civilised Roman values (mores maiorum). They may have enjoyed and respected Greek art and literature, but Greek behaviour, morals and practices came with a stigma: Greekness was often tied up in Roman thought with luxury and immorality. Nero’s desires are such that he has to leave Rome and find the nearest ‘Greek city’ to allow an outlet for his foreign, un-Roman, or, indeed, ‘novel/ weird/ revolutionary’, urges.
inde initium fore, ut transgressus in Achaiam insignesque et antiquitus sacras coronas adeptus maiore fama studia civium eliceret: inde initium fore is an indirect statement dependent on an implied verb of thinking. Tacitus slyly lets us partake of what he assumes were Nero’s thoughts/ motivations at the time. According to him, the emperor already in AD 63 harboured grandiose plans of ‘conquering’ the Greek world with his showbiz talents, anticipating a triumphant return to Rome and an enthusiastic welcome from his fellow-citizens, not unlike those accorded to the military conquerors of old.
inde initium: The alliteration stresses that Nero envisages this performance as just a debut: an ominous sign! Both initium and antiquitus chime with/against the ‘newness’ of Naples.
transgressus in Achaiam insignesque et antiquitus sacras coronas adeptus: The -que after insignes links transgressus and adeptus. The two participles (transgressus; adeptus) and the phrases they govern (in Achaiam; insignesque et antiquitus sacras coronas) are arranged chiastically.
transgressus in Achaiam: The Roman province of Achaea essentially covered mainland Greece. The participle transgressus carries an aggressive note, in a double sense: Nero is transgressing against Roman cultural norms; and he is invading Greece, reversing the cultural conquest of Italy famously noted by Horace at Epistle 2.1.156–57: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit et artis | intulit agresti Latio (‘Conquered Greece conquered/ captivated her wild vanquisher and brought her arts to rustic Latium’).
insignesque et antiquitus sacras coronas adeptus: Winners in prestigious Greek competitions received wreaths (coronae) as prizes. Nero’s thoughts here are designed to put across his devotion to and love of all things Greek: these wreaths are longingly described with the very positive adjectives insignes and antiquitus sacras (lit. ‘anciently sacred’). Moreover, there is the arrogance and mindset of a tyrant here in the participle adeptus (‘having won’): Nero does not doubt for one moment that he will be victorious – and why would he as emperor of the known world! This is Tacitus subtly showing us Nero’s perversion of these competitions.
maiore fama: The word fama (fame) is an ambiguous word in Latin: it can mean ‘fame’ in the positive sense or, in a negative sense, ‘disgrace’, ‘notoriety.’ We are of course in Nero’s thoughts, so ‘he’ means that he will win glory among the citizens; at the same time, we can hear Tacitus’ cynicism and wonder whether the actual result will be Nero achieving disgrace and notoriety.
studia civium eliceret: Nero imagines that his feats on stage will hit the spot, coax enthusiasm from the citizens.
33.3 oppidanorum vulgus: The oppidani are the townsfolk of Neapolis, in contrast to the Roman citizens (cives) mentioned in the previous sentence. The word vulgus (‘crowd’, ‘mob’) suggests that Nero’s local audience is made up of the lowest elements of society.
coloniis et municipiis: Although originally distinct forms of settlement (a colonia being a settlement of Roman citizens, a municipium an independent Italian town), by this period the distinction had lost some of its significance. Tacitus uses both to exaggerate Nero’s recruitment to his fan-club, drawing from anywhere he could all over the country.
eius fama: Here we meet that wonderfully ambiguous word fama again. Once again Tacitus uses it to imply (without explicitly saying) that these men were attracted by the infamy of what Nero was up to: in other words, he not only blackens Nero’s character, but also suggests that the men who flocked to him were lowlifes, attracted to Nero’s outrageous designs like flies round the proverbial canine ordure.
quique Caesarem per honorem aut varios usus sectantur: In the midst of this unseemly rabble the words Caesarem and honorem seem incongruous. They help to give a sense of noble, devoted servants of the emperor caught up in this group. The impression is undone by the vague and promiscuous aut varios usus that follows it. Tacitus may have had in mind the so-called Augustiani – a special group of young men formed by Nero some years previously, to follow him, flatter him and applaud his performances: ‘All great performers had their own claques (fautores histrionum) to cheer them on and to whip up the audience with elaborate rhythmic chants and hand-clapping. It was at his private Juvenile Games, celebrated in 59, that Nero first introduced his Augustiani, Roman knights in their prime who made both day and night ring with applause and praise of Nero’s godlike beauty and voice. ... By the time Nero first appeared in public in Naples, in 64, these Roman knights were backed by some 5,000 hardy plebeian youths. They were divided into groups, factiones, to learn the different elaborate forms of clapping (imported from Alexandria) – “the buzzings,” “the tiles,” “the bricks” – by which Nero had been captivated and which they performed vigorously when he sang.’(What, do you think, did ‘the buzzings’, ‘the tiles’, and ‘the bricks’ sound like?) They would have been amongst this group, and the frequentative verb sectantur (‘keep following around’, ‘follow in the train of’) suggests their fawning attendance on the emperor.
per honorem aut varios usus: The preposition per has a causal sense here. honestum (‘the honourable’) and utile (‘the advantageous’) are two key concepts in (philosophical) ethics, extensively discussed in (for instance) Cicero’s de Officiis.
etiam militum manipuli: etiam (‘even’) and the delay of this group to the end of the long list, makes clear that the soldiers’ presence was the most shocking: Nero has enlisted soldiers (most likely members of the Praetorian guard) to join his fan-club in the theatre and to cheer him on. The maniple was a company in the Roman army, numbering two centuries (i.e. about 120 men in total). Here it is plural (manipuli), indicating that Nero took a very sizeable number of soldiers with him. Their presence, stressed by the alliteration, the etiam and their final position in the list, seems highly incongruous: these fighting men of Rome are there, not to invade, but to watch their emperor disgrace himself like a Greek on the stage.
theatrum Neapolitanorum complent: The object and verb come along at last after a long list of subjects, piling into the theatre. The verb complent makes abundantly clear the number of Nero’s assembled supporters – they pack the house out.
1 See Tacitus, Histories 4.42. Also: Pliny, Letters 1.5.3. For the practice of delation – a new development under the principate – see Introduction Section 2 and 6. Further literature includes Lintott (2001–2003) (including discussion of the republican background) and Rutledge (2001).
2 On fama see now the magisterial treatment by Hardie (2012), with a discussion of rumour in Tacitus’ historiographical works at 288–313. Flaig (2010a) offers an analysis of rumour in Roman politics from a sociological perspective, with specific reference to the reign of Nero.
3 For the varying status of the cities in the Roman Empire see Edmundson (2006) 256–58.
4 Champlin (2003) 59–60. See Suetonius, Nero 20.3 and Annals 14.15.
in dies: day by day
cupido, -inis, f.: desire
adigo, -ere, -egi, -actum: I drive on
promiscus, -a, -um: public
scaena, -ae, f.: stage
frequento, -are, -avi, -atum: I appear frequently
Iuvenales ludi, -ium -orum, m.pl.: the Juvenile Games
ut : (here) as
celeber, -bris, -bre: well-attended
angustus, -a, -um: limited
Neapolis (Gk acc. -im), f.: Neapolis (Naples)
quasi: as it were
deligo, -ere, -legi, -lectum: I choose
Achaia, -ae, f.: Achaea (Roman province of mainland Greece)
insignis, -e: famous
antiquitus : from of old, long-...
corona, -ae, f.: garland
studium, -ii, n.: enthusiasm
elicio, -ere, -licui, -licitum: I win, elicit
contraho, -ere, -traxi, -tractum: I assemble
oppidanus, -i, m.: townsman
municipium, -ii, n.: town
accio, -ire, accivi, accitum: I summon
usus, -us, m.: (here) duty, function
sector, -ari, -atus sum: I follow in the train of
manipulus, -i, m.: a maniple, a company (military unit)
Neapolitani, -orum, m.pl.: Neapolitans, citizens of Neapolis
compleo, -ere, -plevi, -pletum: I fill