15.35

[1] Eius mūnus frequentantī Nerōnī nē inter voluptātēs quidem ā sceleribus cessābātur. īsdem quippe illīs diēbus Torquātus Sīlānus mōrī adigitur, quia super Iuniae familiae clāritūdinem dīvum Augustum abavum ferēbat. [2]iussī accūsātōrēs obicere prōdigum largītiōnibus, neque aliam spem quam in rēbus novīs esse: quīn inter lībertōs habēre quōs ab epistulīs et lībellīs et ratiōnibus appellet, nōmina summae cūrae et meditāmenta. [3] tum intimus quisque lībertōrum vīnctī abreptīque; et cum damnātiō īnstāret, brāchiōrum vēnās Torquātus interscidit; secūtaque Nerōnis ōrātiō ex mōre, quamvīs sontem et dēfēnsiōnī meritō diffīsum victūrum tamen fuisse sī clēmentiam iūdicis exspectāsset.

Essay

35.1

Nero, so Tacitus implies, was such an inveterate criminal that he planned his misdeed even during hours devoted to public entertainment. That he did not even cease from plotting. . . [full essay]

Study Questions

35.1:

  • Parse frequentanti.
  • State and explain the case of isdem ... illis diebus and discuss the effect of having two attributes (isdem and illis).
  • Briefly outline who Torquatus Silanus is. What reasons does Nero have for wanting him to be killed?

35.2:

  • Explain why Torquatus’ employment of the titles ab epistulis, a libellis and a rationibus was dangerous.
  • What type of genitive is summae curae?

35.3:

  • State and explain the case of defensioni.
  • Parse victurum.
  • Who is referred to by iudicis? How would you describe Tacitus’ tone here?

Stylistic Appreciation:

How does Tacitus make this short passage a terrifying glimpse of Neronian Rome?

Discussion Point:

To what extent, if any, do you think Torquatus is to blame for what happened to him? What does this episode reveal about the nature of monarchy in Rome under Nero? Or about monarchy in general? Do any similar episodes spring to mind from ancient or modern history?

35.1 eius munus frequentanti Neroni ... cessabatur: eius refers back to Vatinius. munus is the gladiatorial games that Vatinius put on; it is the accusative object of the present participle frequentanti, which modifies Neroni (a dative of agency with the passive cessabatur).

isdem quippe illis diebus Torquatus Silanus mori adigitur: Cassius Dio has the following account (62.27.2): ‘Junius Torquatus, a descendant of Augustus, was handed over for punishment on a remarkable charge. He had squandered his property rather prodigally, whether following his native bent or with the deliberate intention of not being very rich. Nero therefore declared that, as he lacked many things, he must be covetous of the goods of others, and consequently caused a fictitious charge to be brought against him of aspiring to the imperial power.’ As discussed above, he places the enforced suicide in the following year. Notice the sardonic pseudo-parallelism between Nero ‘driven by desire’ and Silanus ‘driven to death’ (adigebatur, 33.1 ~ adigit, 35.1).

quia super Iuniae familiae claritudinem divum Augustum abavum ferebat: The Junian family was one of Rome’s oldest and grandest patrician families (i.e. descended from Rome’s original senate). Its most famous scions were the two Bruti, one of whom expelled the kings from Rome in 509 BC, the other who led the assassins of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. The immense nobility and antiquity of his lineage make him an especially dangerous threat to Nero.

[Extra information:

As John Henderson reminds us, ‘the Junii Silani chapter in Syme’s Augustan Aristocracy is maybe the most powerful performance of prosopography – and of death by prosopography, or sentencing-by stemma-under-tyranny.’ And he elaborates: ‘Rhetorically mixing Junius Silanus in with the sordid jester’s fun and gladiatorial games gives Tacitus another chance to pump up the disgust: as if the bluest of blue nobles was not just liquidated but given the imperial thumbsdown – humiliated as star victim out in the arena among the condemned criminals and slaves. But this pathetically stark notice of elimination – earning no more coverage than that solo concert and those small beer games – also keeps the continuing story of the Silani (begun way back even before “great-great-grandfather” Augustus, and folding in the weight of the entire roll-call of Roman history since the republic began) as Nero’s prime alternatives-and-targets stoked: where the reign (and Annals’ Neronian hexad) began (prima novo principatu mors Iunii Silanus …, 13.1.1), all but ceased (in the Pisonian Conspiracy, where Piso feared the next Silanus in line as his likely rival for the throne, 15.52), and plunged into non-stop purge (16.7-9, that next-in-line goes down valiantly fighting the emperor’s hitmen): the nadir comes when a senator gets the three months April to June re-branded for Nero, Claudius and Germanicus, the last because the crimes of the Junii Torquati had made the name ‘June-ius’ unholy! (16.12) Finally, for the finale in our MSS, Thrasea Paetus provokes his martyrdom inter alia by public display of outrage for the Silani (16.22).’]

35.2 iussi accusatores: The emphatic first position of iussi enacts Nero’s decisive, unhesitating actions, ordering men to bring trumped-up charges against Torquatus.

obicere prodigum largitionibus: obicere introduces an indirect statement, with both the subject accusative (eum, sc. Torquatum) and the verb (esse) elided. prodigum stands in predicative position to the implied subject accusative: ‘...that he was excessively generous in his munificence.’ As Miller points out, these two well-chosen words ‘accuse him of being (a) poor, and so dangerous, as seeing in revolution his only hope of recouping his fortunes [cf. neque aliam spem quam in rebus novis esse], (b) responsible for his poverty, because of extravagance, and (c) over-generous, with overtones of bribery.’1 Excessive munificence is one of the hallmarks of the tyrant since it secures willing followers who hope for more, so Torquatus’ profligacy is turned into an implicit threat to Nero. Cassius Dio (cited above) suggests that Torquatus gave away his wealth as a safety measure, to pre-empt being murdered to fill the imperial purse. Under Nero, plain to see, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

quin inter libertos: We are still hearing the charges made against him. The use of quin (‘moreover’) here helps the accusers to magnify his treason. All large Roman households had freedmen in senior positions who managed the business and administrative responsibilities of their masters.

ab epistulis et libellis et rationibus appellet: Under the Republic, these titles would have been common in noble households. However, with the imperial household becoming the centre of power, these titles became essentially offices of state, which in turn meant that their use by anyone else but the emperor could be interpreted as a sign that this person harboured hopes of usurping the throne. The polysyndeton again exaggerates the number of Torquatus’ crimes.

nomina summae curae et meditamenta: The genitive of quality summae curae (‘of the highest, i.e. imperial, administration’) goes with both nomina and meditamenta (a Tacitean neologism for meditatio). Nero’s henchmen charge Torquatus with putting on a dress-rehearsal for his ascent to the throne, which implies that he is plotting Nero’s overthrow.

35.3 intimus quisque libertorum vincti abreptique [sc. sunt]: Nero’s henchmen go for Torquatus’ key servants: intimus quisque (singular in form, but plural in sense – hence the verbs are in the plural) refers to those whom he held in closest confidence.

cum damnatio instaret, brachiorum venas Torquatus interscidit: Torquatus knew which way the wind was blowing and took the usual way out while the final verdict was still outstanding: ‘Suicide was employed (A. 6,29) to anticipate condemnation, and to ensure an easier death, proper burial and the validity of the accused’s will.’2 For special effect, Tacitus again delays subject (Torquatus) and verb (interscidit) till the very end, though readers would have known what was coming after the accusative object (placed up front) brachiorum venas.

secuta [sc. est] Neronis oratio: oratio implies that Nero spoke in an official setting, perhaps in front of the senate. The inversion of normal word order, which gives special prominence to the verb secuta, makes clear the immediacy of Nero’s statement, adding pathos and the irony that, straight after he all but forced Torquatus to suicide, the emperor claims that he would have spared his life if only he had waited.

ex more: This phrase is loaded with Tacitus’ dark cynicism and despair: this, he says, was common practice under the emperors. In Annals 2.31, the emperor Tiberius did and said the same thing after forcing a senator called Libo to commit suicide: it seems this was a method the emperor could use to achieve what he desired and still maintain a pretence of clemency.

quamvis sontem et defensioni merito diffisum victurum tamen fuisse, si clementiam iudicis exspectasset: Tacitus summarizes Nero’s oration in indirect speech: the subject accusative of the apodosis, sc. Torquatum (modified by sontem and diffisum in predicative position), is implied; the verb is victurum fuisse. Of course Nero does not concede that Torquatus was innocent; rather, he goes out of his way to stress that he was guilty. First, we have the emphatically placed sontem; then comes the comment that he was right to lose confidence in his defence (defensioni merito diffisum). Put differently, Nero here twists Torquatus’ suicide into a confession of guilt. This serves him as foil to promote his mercy: he would have pardoned a man whom he knew to be plotting against him. After what has just been said, Tacitus is leading his reader to say, ‘Yeah right!’

clementiam iudicis: Emperors liked to be able to boast mercy as one of their virtues (remember Nero’s rapprochement with Thrasea at 15.23), and Nero’s tutor Seneca had written a treatise entitled de Clementia, ‘On Mercy’, as a guide for Nero in his boyhood. The iudex Nero mentions is he himself, either because some trials of this type were held intra cubiculum (i.e. behind closed doors in the imperial palace): see Annals 11.2 for an example; or because he could have vetoed the capital punishment handed out by a senatorial jury (as he wished to do – but was pre-empted by Thrasea – in the case of Antistius: see Annals 14.49, cited in the Introduction, Section 6). That Tacitus presents Nero as referring to himself in the third person generates more of that ironic tone with which Tacitus has imbued this little story. ‘Nero said that he would have been saved, if only he’d waited for a fair, merciful judge... like Nero!’ At the same time, as John Henderson points out to us, Nero might well have acted on the principle nomen est omen (‘the name is a portent’) in driving Iunius Silanus Torquatus into suicide: ‘Besides the hallowed/dangerous name of Iunius, our Silanus sports the legendary badge of honour “Torquatus” originally acquired by T. Manlius in solo victory over a champion Gaul (followed by decapitation and removal of his golden “torque”, or “necklace” > hence “Torquatus”); besides the degradation of this pre-sentencing suicide, there is the force of the legend’s sequel to reckon with, as marked by the Roman proverb “imperia Manliana”, where Torquatus now in command did not celebrate his son’s copycat solo combat victory but instead had him executed for leaving the ranks without first asking permission (see Livy 8.7.8–22 for the gruesome details). Like everyone else, Nero knew perfectly well that “clemency” was not supposed to run in, or apply to, this family!’

Footnotes

1 Miller (1975) 84.

2 Miller (1975) 84.

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

frequento, -are, -avi, -atum: I attend

voluptas, -atis, f.: pleasure

cesso, -are, -avi, -atum: I cease, rest

quippe: for in fact

adigo, -ere, -egi, -actum: I force

super (+ acc.): in addition to

Iunia familia, -ae, f.: the Junian family (Torquatus’ family)

claritudo, -inis, f.: distinction, fame

divus, -a, -um: divine

abavus, -i, m.: great-great-grandfather

fero, ferre, tuli, latum: (here) I claim

obicio, -ere, -ieci, -iectum: I bring a charge

prodigus, -a, -um (sc. esse): extravagant

largitio, -onis, f.: hand-out, largesse

res novae, rerum novarum, f.pl.: revolution

quin: moreover that he... (ind. stat. continues)

ab epistulis: ‘for letters’ – a label designating ‘Private Secretary’

(a) libellis: ‘for petitions’ – label designating ‘Petitions Secretary’

(a) rationibus: ‘for book-keeping’ – label designating ‘Accountant’

appello, -are, -avi, -atum: I call

cura, -ae, f.: (here) administration

meditamentum, -i, n.: training exercise; first step on the path to [summa cura]

intimus, -a, -um: most intimate

vincio, -ire, vinxi, vinctum: I tie up, put in chains

abripio, -ere, -ripui, -reptum: I tear away

damnatio, -onis, f.: condemnation

insto, -are, -stiti, -statum: I am at hand

brachium, -ii, n.: arm

vena, -ae, f.: vein

interscindo, -ere, -scidi, -scissum: I sever

ex more: as usual

quamvis: although

sons, sontis: guilty (referring to Torquatus)

defensio, -onis, f.: defence

merito: with good reason

diffisus, -a, -um (+ dat.): without confidence in

vivo, -ere, vixi, victum: I live (fut. partic. = victurus)

clementia, -ae, f.: mercy

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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/15-35