15.34

[1.1] Illīc, plērīque ut arbitrābantur, trīste, ut ipse, prōvidum potius et secundīs nūminibus ēvenit: nam ēgressō quī adfuerat populō vacuum et sine ūllīus noxā theātrum conlāpsum est. [1.2] ergō per compositōs cantūs grātēs dīs atque ipsam recentis cāsūs fortūnam celebrāns petītūrusque maris Hadriae trāiectūs apud Beneventum interim cōnsēdit, ubi gladiātōrium mūnus ā Vatīniō celebre edēbātur. [2] Vatīnius inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta fuit, sūtrīnae tabernae alumnus, corpore dētortō, facētiīs scurrīlibus; prīmō in contumēliās adsūmptus, dehinc optimī cuiusque crīminātiōne eō usque valuit ut grātiā pecūniā vī nocendī etiam malōs praemineret.

Essay

34.2

Here we get a little portrait of one of Nero’s creatures – the parvenu Vatinius from Beneventum, who reputedly had a long nose (Juvenal, Satire 5.46–7, Martial, Epigrams 14.96). . . [full essay]

Study Questions

34.1:

  • State and explain the case of secundis numinibus.
  • Parse casus.
  • What is striking about the phrase maris Hadriae?
  • What does ‘Beneventum’ mean and how does Tacitus play with the name?

34.2:

  • What type of ablative is corpore?
  • What type of clause is ut introducing here?
  • What type of ablatives are gratia pecunia vi nocendi? What makes this phrase particularly effective?

Stylistic Appreciation:

With reference to Tacitus’ choice and position of words and other stylistic features, discuss how this chapter contributes to an impression of the perversity of Nero and his court.

Discussion Point:

Why does Vatinius appal Tacitus so much? What about imperial Rome made figures such as Vatinius possible? Are there any comparable figures in later history or in the present day? What do you make of the link between physical and moral deformity: is physiognomy entirely dead in modern popular thought?

34.1.1 illic, plerique ut arbitrabantur, triste, ut ipse, providum potius et secundis numinibus evenit: One could rephrase the sentence as follows, to bring out Tacitus’ syntactic contortions: illic res evenit tristis, ut plerique arbitrabantur, sed provida et secundis numinibus, ut ipse arbitrabatur. In other words, we have:

  • a hysteron proteron: Tacitus first gives us the evaluation, then the fact that is being evaluated (indeed, we have to wait until the next sentence to find out what actually happened – but the effect is already noticeable here with arbitrabantur preceding evenit);
  • the use of adjectives (triste, providum) in the place of nouns; triste stands in antithetical contrast to providum potius et secundis numinibus;
  • a parallelisms with twists: plerique ut arbitrabantur corresponds to ut ipse, but the subject plerique is pulled out of the first ut-clause for emphasis and in the second ut-clause the verb is elided.

The parallel structure and anaphora of ut renders the disparity between most people’s judgment and Nero’s apparent. A majority of right-thinking observers saw this event as triste, in contrast to the one man, Nero himself, who thought otherwise. Nero’s opinion is not just different but the exact opposite. In addition the pleonastic providum ... et secundis numinibus, a prolix phrase designed to drown out the word triste with great, yet hollow triumphalist fanfare, suggests the bizarre amount of positive meaning Nero tried to read into the destruction of a theatre. The alliteration providum potius helps to stress the contrast.

illic: in Neapolis.

et secundis numinibus: An ablative absolute (with the verb – the non-existent present participle of esse – missing), awkwardly linked to providum with et.

nam egresso qui adfuerat populo vacuum et sine ullius noxa theatrum collapsum est: Tacitus now explains why Nero viewed the event as favourable – because the theatre was not destroyed while in use. Nevertheless, a theatre collapsing is not generally viewed as providential, and one can appreciate the challenge Nero faced in endowing it with positive meaning. Or, as John Henderson puts it: ‘A failed building was a literal ruina – and everywhere outside Nero’s nutcase spelled “ruination” (of social fabric, the universe, etc).’

egresso qui adfuerat populo: An ablative absolute that contains a relative clause within. The antecedent of qui is populo.

vacuum et sine ullius noxa: As in providum potius et secundis numinibus, Tacitus uses et very creatively here: ‘the theatre collapsed [when it was] empty and [hence] without harm to anyone.’

theatrum collapsum est: After much delay Tacitus finally tells us what all the fuss is about. Suetontius, Nero 20.2, identifies an earthquake as the reason for the collapse, which, he claims, set in during one of Nero’s performances: Et prodit Neapoli primum ac ne concusso quidem repente motu terrae theatro ante cantare destitit, quam incohatum absolveret nomon (‘And he made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake shock’).

To understand Nero’s reaction better, it is worth recalling Tacitus’ account of a similar disaster at Annals 4.62, where he details the collapse of a full amphitheatre in the year AD 27 (i.e. in the reign of Tiberius):

[62] M. Licinio L. Calpurnio consulibus ingentium bellorum cladem aequavit malum improvisum: eius initium simul et finis exstitit. nam coepto apud Fidenam amphitheatro Atilius quidam libertini generis, quo spectaculum gladiatorum celebraret, neque fundamenta per solidum subdidit neque firmis nexibus ligneam compagem superstruxit, ut qui non abundantia pecuniae nec municipali ambitione, sed in sordidam mercedem id negotium quaesivisset. adfluxere avidi talium, imperitante Tiberio procul voluptatibus habiti, virile ac muliebre secus, omnis aetas, ob propinquitatem loci effusius; unde gravior pestis fuit, conferta mole, dein convulsa, dum ruit intus aut in exteriora effunditur immensamque vim mortalium, spectaculo intentos aut qui circum adstabant, praeceps trahit atque operit. et illi quidem, quos principium stragis in mortem adflixerat, ut tali sorte, cruciatum effugere: miserandi magis quos abrupta parte corporis nondum vita deseruerat; qui per diem visu, per noctem ululatibus et gemitu coniuges aut liberos noscebant. iam ceteri fama exciti, hic fratrem, propinquum ille, alius parentes lamentari. etiam quorum diversa de causa amici aut necessarii aberant, pavere tamen; nequedum comperto, quos illa vis perculisset, latior ex incerto metus.

[In the consulate of Marcus Licinius and Lucius Calpurnius, the casualties of some great wars were equalled by an unexpected disaster. It began and ended in a moment. A certain Atilius, of the freedman class, who had begun an amphitheatre at Fidena, in order to give a gladiatorial show, failed both to lay the foundation in solid ground and to secure the fastenings of the wooden structure above; the reason being that he had embarked on the enterprise, not from a superabundance of wealth nor to court the favours of his townsmen, but with an eye to sordid gain. Greedy for such amusements, since they had been debarred from their pleasures under the reign of Tiberius, people poured to the place, men and women, old and young, the stream swollen because the town lay near. This increased the gravity of the catastrophe, as the unwieldy fabric was packed when it collapsed, breaking inward or sagging outward, and precipitating and burying a vast crowd of human beings, intent on the spectacle or standing around. Those, indeed, whom the first moment of havoc had dashed to death, escaped torture, so far as was possible in such a fate: more to be pitied were those whose mutilated bodies life had not yet abandoned, who by day recognized their wives or their children by sight, and at night by their shrieks and moans. The news brought the absent to the scene – one lamenting a brother, one a kinsman, another his parents. Even those whose friends or relatives had left home for a different reason still felt the alarm, and, as it was not yet known whom the catastrophe had destroyed, the uncertainty gave wider range for fear.]

In the wake of the disaster, Tacitus goes on to report, the senate passed a decree that no one with a fortune of less than 400,000 sesterces should organize gladiatorial games and that amphitheatres had to be built on ground of tried solidity.

34.1.2 per compositos cantus: compositos implies that Nero wrote the songs himself.

grates dis atque ipsam recentis casus fortunam celebrans: One can either supply agens with grates dis or take both grates and ipsam fortunam as accusative objects of celebrans in what would be a zeugma. The zeugma gives the sentence a slightly strained feel, helping to convey the oddity of Nero’s actions. ipsam recentis casus (= mis-fortune) fortunam (= luck, good fortune) celebrans amounts to a paradox.

grates: See above on 20.1.

celebrans petiturusque: The -que links celebrans and petiturus. Note the variatio here, this time in terms of word order: the present participle celebrans comes at the end of its phrase, whereas the future petiturus... comes at the beginning. The juxtaposition of a present participle and future participle is striking: Nero has hardly finished dealing with one calamity before his mind is already set on the next outrage.

petiturusque maris Hadriae traiectus: Tacitus uses the poetic phrase maris Hadriae (lit. ‘of the Sea of Hadria’, i.e. the town of Adria, rather than plain adjectival ‘of the Adriatic Sea’). traiectus is accusative plural. One wonders what evidence Tacitus can have had for the claim that already in AD 64 Nero had plans to go straight from his first public appearance on stage at Neapolis on a tour through Greece – two years before he actually did. At 36.1, at any rate, Tacitus reports that Nero had dropped the plan for unknown reasons and returned from Beneventum to Rome: nec multo post omissa in praesens Achaia (causae in incerto fuere) urbem revisit (see below). Now it is true that Beneventum, though situated to the north of Neapolis, would be a good stop on the way to Brundisium, especially if Nero wanted to honour Vatinius with his presence at the games: it was situated at the Via Appia (see Map of Italy); but for the same reasons, Nero might have gone there on his way back to Rome. Given that a tour of Greece by the emperor was a logistical challenge of the first order, it is rather unlikely that Nero opted for and against going at the spur of the moment. Possibly, Tacitus simply made this up, thereby anticipating Nero’s actual trip to Greece two years later and illustrating the fickleness of the emperor on top. Support for this assumption comes from the etymology of Beneventum, which makes it an ideal place to ponder a sea voyage. As John Henderson points out, the story is that the auspicious Latin name ‘Bene-ventum’, ‘Fair wind’ (mildly in tension with consedit: see below), replaced the Latin rendering of the original nice Greek name, Maloeis, ‘Appley’ – ‘Male-ventum’, for portending a bad outcome for heedless voyagers.3

apud Beneventum interim consedit: Beneventum, a city located on the Via Appia, was the hometown of Vatinius, whom Tacitus introduces in the following clause. See previous note for its etymology. There is a mild pun in consedit as Nero, rather than setting sail, ‘settled’– ‘into his seat’ to watch the gladiator show.

ubi gladiatorium munus a Vatinio celebre edebatur: For Vatinius, see Miller’s colourful note: ‘he was a native of Beneventum (Juvenal 5.46 [and therefore unrelated to the powerful foe of Cicero, whose family came from Sabine Reate]) and a new type of court character – the licensed buffoon. But such men, in Roman as in medieval times, could be powerful and dangerous. Tacitus recognises his importance, and his colour-value in the narrative.’4 Gladiatorial games were a very Roman form of entertainment, unlike stage-plays, lyre-playing or athletics.

celebre: Tacitus delays the attribute that indicates the popularity of this form of entertainment – perhaps implying a contrast with the ‘hired enthusiasts’ that crowded Nero’s performances? (Recall that at 33.1 Nero is presented as deeming his gardens parum celebres for his talents.)

34.2 Vatinius inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta fuit, sutrinae tabernae alumnus, corpore detorto, facetiis scurrilibus: After first establishing that Nero’s entire court teemed with disgusting misfits – the implication of inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta is that there were many others who reached the same superlative degree of repulsiveness – Tacitus proceeds to specifics. They are presented in a punchy, asyndetic tricolon, with typical variation in construction and style: (i) sutrinae tabernae alumnus, (ii) corpore detorto, (iii) facetiis scurrilibus.

inter foedissima eius aulae ostenta: The superlative foedissima, a very powerful and negative word implying both moral and physical ugliness, gives an immediate sense of Vatinius’ character. Tacitus further casts him as one of the ostenta (marvels, monstrosities) of the court, describing him like a freakish and horrifying object. ostentum is synonymous with monstrum and prodigium and refers to a spectacularly unnatural occurrence: Nero’s entire court emerges as an abomination of what is normal and natural.

sutrinae tabernae alumnus: Tacitus reports scornfully his humble background, a sign for Roman readers of how unfitting it was for him to be in the emperor’s court. Note the emphatic position of sutrinae, to stress the lowliness of his family.

corpore detorto: An ablative of quality. The adjective detortus (‘twisted out of shape’) gives a vivid evocation of his deformity. Tacitus, as many other classical authors, operates on the assumption that physical appearance offers insights into character. ‘Physiognomy’, as the procedure of deducing psychological traits from physical characteristics, was a pseudo-science with considerable traction in antiquity (and beyond).5 We should therefore understand detortus both literally and metaphorically. In fact, Vatinius could be seen as the ‘face’ of Nero’s regime – a twisted and ugly perversion of anything pleasing and natural. Under the Julio-Claudian emperors the ‘body politic’ is as deformed as Vatinius’ appearance. Not coincidentally, Tacitus uses the verb at the very beginning of the Annals in his characterization of Tiberius (1.7.7): postea cognitum est ad introspiciendas etiam procerum voluntates inductam dubitationem: nam verba vultus in crimen detorquens recondebat (‘It was realized later that his coyness had been assumed with the further object of gaining an insight into the feelings of the aristocracy: for all the while he was distorting words and looks into crimes and storing them in his memory’).

facetiis scurrilibus: Vatinius’ sense of humour was as deformed as his body. Again, the adjective scurrilibus is significant: it is a rare word and comes from the noun scurra, a buffoon or jester. ‘Tacitus is giving him a basinfull of his own medicine: comically, the name Vatinius itself originated as one of those peasanty Roman nicknames for physical debility, “Knock-Knees”. What for Nero’s pet is presumably a ‘trade-name’ apes (and trashes) an inherited aristocratic badge of honour. Nero’s next victim will go down for his pedigree name – and bona fide descent.’6

primo in contumelias adsumptus, dehinc optimi cuiusque criminatione eo usque valuit, ut gratia pecunia vi nocendi etiam malos praemineret: Vatinius was initially recruited to serve as an object of mockery, but managed to turn the victimization he suffered on account of his physical disabilities around by virtue of his sharp and evil wit. This structure primo ... dehinc (‘first... then...’) suggests the unexpected transformation of Vatinius from jester to power-figure.

primo in contumelias adsumptus: In other words, Vatinius was taken in as a member of the court as a jester (not exactly a sign of his nobility of character or eminence). Jesters were, as in mediaeval times, a feature of the Roman imperial court.

dehinc optimi cuiusque criminatione ... valuit: Tacitus was aware of the potential power and danger of the lowlier figures in the court. optimi cuiusque stands in implicit contrast to Vatinius himself, and there is evident disgust as Tacitus reports how a shoeshop-born, crippled jester from Beneventum brought about the downfall of noble Romans. The mention of criminatione (by accusing) tells us that Vatinius became a delator (‘informer’): under the one-man rule of imperial Rome, many men found riches and favour by informing on their fellow citizens and having them condemned.7 Informers populate Tacitus’ Annals from 1.74 onwards.

eo usque valuit, ut...: The strongly-phrased result clause (to the point that...) makes clear how dramatically his power grew by his ignoble informing.

ut gratia pecunia vi nocendi etiam malos praemineret: The asyndetic tricolon, which consists of three ablatives of means, enumerates what Vatinius had gained under Nero: (i) gratia, by seeming to be particularly loyal to the emperor and by inspiring fear in the other courtiers; (ii) pecunia, because the confiscated property of the accused was often given in part to the informer; and (iii) vi nocendi, since influence at court and financial resources under Nero’s regime yield great power to cause even further damage and harm. The punch-line comes at the end: Vatinius’ influence at court is such that he stands out even among the mali – in Tacitus’ imperial Rome that took some doing. The word (‘bad men/crooks’), which refers to Nero’s other courtiers, casts them as a thoroughly reprehensible lot, while the fact that Vatinius outdid ‘even’ (etiam) them makes clear how abysmal a character he was. Tacitus uses the verb praeminere (‘to become pre-eminent over’, ‘to excel’) with cutting sarcasm: like the English ‘pre-eminent’, it is usually a very positive word, implying superiority and nobility; but in the twisted world of Nero’s court, Vatinius became ‘pre-eminent’ by being even more appalling and immoral than the rest. Turning physical impairment into a double plus, the jester turned informer rose to be a powerful – towering – strongman (valuit, vi, praemineret).

Footnotes

3 See Swain et al. (2007).

4 So Henderson; see further Henderson (2004) 77.

5 On the ‘informer’ see Introduction Section 2 and 6.

arbitror, -ari, -atus sum: I think

providus, -a, -um: providential, a sign of good omen

secundus, -a, -um: favourable

numen, -inis, n.: (here) will of the gods

noxa, -ae, f.: harm

theatrum, -i, n.: theatre

conlabor, -i, -lapsus sum: I collapse

per (+ acc.): (here) in, by

compositus, -a, -um: written, made up, composed

cantus, -us, m.: song

grates, ium f. pl.: thanks rendered, thanksgiving

casus, -us, m.: accident

celebro, -are, -avi, -atum: I celebrate

petiturus (fut. partic. of peto): ‘as he was on his way to’

traiectus, -us, m.: crossing

consido, -ere, -sedi, -sessum: I rest, sit down

munus, -eris, n.: (here) a (public) show

celeber, -bris, -bre: crowded, well-attended

edo, -ere, edidi, editum: I put on (a show)

foedus, -a, -um: foul

aula, -ae, f.: court

ostentum, -i, n.: marvel, wonder

sutrina taberna, -ae, f.: shoemaker’s shop

alumnus, -a, -um (+ gen.): brought up in

detortus, -a, -um: deformed

facetiae, -arum, f.pl.: sense of humour, wit

scurrilis, -e: scurrilous, offensive

in contumelias: ‘as the butt of insults’

adsumo, -ere, -sumpsi, -sumptum: I take on

dehinc: subsequently

criminatio, -onis, f.: accusation

valeo, -ere, -ui: I am powerful

gratia, -ae, f.: influence

mali, -orum, m.pl.: ‘crooks’ (refers to Nero’s courtiers)

praemineo, -ere: I outdo, surpass, am pre-eminent

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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/15-34