[1] Nec multō post omissa in praesēns Achāia (causae in incertō fuēre) urbem revīsit, prōvinciās Orientis, maximē Aegyptum, sēcrētīs imāginātiōnibus agitāns. dehinc ēdictō testificātus nōn longam suī absentiam et cūncta in rē pūblicā perinde immōta ac prōspera fore, super eā profectiōne adiit Capitōlium. [2] illīc venerātus deōs, cum Vestae quoque templum inīsset, repente cūnctōs per artūs tremēns, seu nūmine exterrente, seu facinorum recordātiōne numquam timōre vacuus, dēseruit inceptum, cūnctās sibi cūrās amōre patriae leviōrēs dictitāns. [3] vīdisse maestōs cīvium vultūs, audīre sēcrētās querimōniās, quod tantum itineris aditūrus esset, cuius nē modicōs quidem ēgressūs tolerārent, suētī adversum fortuita aspectū prīncipis refovērī. ergō ut in prīvātīs necessitūdinibus proxima pignora praevalērent, ita populum Rōmānum vim plūrimam habēre pārendumque retinentī. [4] haec atque tālia plēbī volentiā fuēre, voluptātum cupīdine et, quae praecipua cūra est, reī frūmentāriae angustiās, sī abesset, metuentī. senātus et prīmōrēs in incertō erant procul an cōram atrōcior habērētur: dehinc, quae nātūra magnīs timōribus, dēterius crēdēbant quod ēvēnerat.

    Study Questions


    • What type of ablative is multo?
    • What is the Capitolium and what is its significance?


    • illic ... inceptum: analyse how the syntax of this sentence helps to articulate its sense.
    • What type of ablative is amore?


    • What are the tenses of the infinitives vidisse ... audire? What do you think the change of tense conveys? What construction here necessitates the use of infinitives?
    • State and explain the case of itineris.
    • What type of gerundive is parendum?


    • State and explain the mood of haberetur.

    Stylistic Appreciation:

    How does Tacitus create in this chapter a powerfully damning account of the hypocrisy and corruption of both ruler and ruled in the time of Nero?

    Discussion Point:

    In this chapter Tacitus seems to delve deep into Nero’s psychology, reporting his secret hopes and his greatest fears: is this within a historian’s remit? What aspects of the relationship between the emperor and the people does Tacitus want us to dwell on? Do you accept Tacitus’ scathing judgment on the selfish priorities of the plebs?

    36.1 nec multo post omissa in praesens Achaia: nec = et non, with the non negating the ablative of the measure of difference multo: ‘not by much.’ multo modifies the adverb post (‘later’, ‘afterwards’). omissa ... Achaia is an ablative absolute, and in praesens another adverbial phrase of time (‘for the moment’). The sentence harks back to 34.1 where Tacitus mentioned that Nero came to Beneventum on his way to Greece, at which point the narrative took a detour with the character portrayal of Vatinius and the Silanus affair. Nero returned to the idea of touring Greece in AD 66, but the part of the Annals that would have covered the tour is unfortunately lost. Tacitus here employs very vague temporal markers (what does non multo post mean, precisely?), arguably to obfuscate that he is playing fast and loose with facts and chronology – certainly to pretend to bracket off the (displaced) rubbing out of Silanus as if merely incidental to the chief narrative thread, storming the world of song. (Before ‘revisiting’ Beneventum.)

    causae in incerto fuere: fuere = fuerunt. If the assumption is correct that Tacitus made up Nero’s desire to tour Greece in AD 64 and then abandoning the plan, it hardly surprises that his reasons for not going remain obscure. At the same time, the phrase adds an air of intrigue to Nero’s alleged change of heart. Did he hear about a conspiracy? Was the affair of Torquatus more serious? Was he more alarmed by events in Neapolis than he made out? The silence of this parenthesis adds drama, certainly. And by contrast it underlines that the reasons for getting rid of Silanus were unmistakeable, however nonchalantly Nero assured us otherwise.

    urbem: Usually, as here, Rome.

    provincias Orientis, maxime Aegyptum, secretis imaginationibus agitans: Tacitus here gives a standard idiom a lurid twist: agitare aliquid/ de aliqua re in the sense of ‘to drive at a thing in the mind, to consider, meditate upon’ often takes an ablative of place (with or without in), such as in corde, in mente, or animo. Here we get the highly suggestive secretis imaginationibus (‘in his private delusions’, ‘in his secret fancies’). The rare, ponderous, noun imaginatio, to be sure, fits the object of Nero’s obsession – in Rome’s cultural imagination the Eastern part of the Mediterranean was associated with fables and fantasies as well as an elaborate culture of performance, from drama to music. But we may wonder how Tacitus could have had evidence of the day-dreams of the emperor. As with the abandoned trip to Greece, the historiographer here adopts a stance of impossible omniscience. The trip to the Near East, though, acquired a different degree of reality: as the following sentences make clear, Nero ‘staged’, in the most public fashion, his decision both to go – and not to go.

    dehinc: Like nec multo post, this word (‘then’) keeps the action racing forward, presenting us with a picture of an extremely impulsive emperor leaping from one thing to another: first Greece, then not, then considering the East, then the plan is off.

    edicto testificatus: Nero announces his plans to depart for the Near East in a public edict, combining the announcement of his absence from the capital with reassurances that he would not stay long and take measures to ensure the continued well-being of the capital. In other words, he counterbalances an action that could be interpreted negatively on the part of the people (departure from Rome, to honour another city with his presence) with declaring his abiding affection and concern for the urban populace even in his absence. All of this formed part of the elaborate system of symbolic communication between the emperor and the groups that sustained his reign. At the same time, Tacitus conveys something of Nero’s egomaniac fantasizing: the imperial genius is frustrated in having to keep his talent close at home when he wants it to light up his world-empire.

    non longam sui absentiam [sc. fore]: An indirect statement dependent on testificatus. This is Nero’s first reassurance to the anxious (as Nero believes) people: he will not be gone long. The sui (his own) is not grammatically necessary, but is there to underscore Nero’s realization that the people would be concerned to hear that he was going away. For a senatorial historiographer such as Tacitus, the proximity and affection between the people and the emperor would be grating. Horace, in an Ode addressed to Augustus while he was absent on campaign in Gaul, presents both the people and the senate as yearning for his return to the capital (4.5.1–8: Divis orte bonis, optime Romulae | custos gentis, abes iam nimium diu: | maturum reditum pollicitus patrum | sancto concilio, redi. || lucem redde tuae, dux bone, patriae. | instar veris enim vultus ubi tuus | affulsit populo, gratior it dies | et soles melius nitent: ‘Descended from the good divinities, excellent guardian of the Romulan race, you have been absent for too long: come back in haste as you promised the sacred council of senators. Bring back light to your country, good leader. When like springtime your face has shown upon the people, the day goes by more pleasantly and the rays of the sun shine more brightly.’) Horace’s harmonious menage à trois of princeps, senate, and people contrasts sharply with the dysfunctional relationships between these three constituencies of Roman imperial rule under Nero – as well as underscording the indispensability of the emperor’s presence in Rome.

    cuncta in re publica perinde immota ac prospera fore: Tacitus endows Nero’s formulations with unintended irony: the great fire of Rome is only a paragraph away.

    super ea profectione adiit Capitolium: The Capitoline Hill was the religious and ceremonial heart of the city and the empire. The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus, with the associated cults of Juno and Minerva, was the focus of Rome’s official religion. There is something perverse about Nero’s visit to the Capitol: in the ‘old days’, generals on the way to wars would have gone to pray to Jupiter, and it was also on the route of the triumphal procession for victorious generals; but now Nero goes there to pray for the help of the mighty Jupiter Optimus Maximus for his theatrical trip to the East.

    super ea profectione: The preposition super here as a causal sense: ‘on account of.’

    36.2 veneratus ..., cum ... inisset, tremens ... seu numine exterrente ... seu ... numquam ... vacuus ... deseruit inceptum: The main verb of the sentence comes at last after the long build up of participles and subordinate clauses. The syntax conveys a sense of Nero’s mounting anxiety until the breaking point, represented by the two-word clause deseruit inceptum.

    veneratus deos: There were temples to many deities on the Capitoline, not just Jupiter.

    Vestae ... templum: The temple of Vesta was in the Roman Forum just below the Capitoline Hill. Vestaens: Nero’s fear manifests itself in physical symptoms. The sudden onset of Nero’s panic is made clear by repente, and the extent of it by cunctos and the vivid verb tremens.

    seu ... seu...: This technique of ‘alternative motivation’ is common in Tacitus.1 When he provides two reasons for an event or phenomenon, the second one given is generally the one he wishes to stress. (It tends to be the more discreditable one as well.) This is the case here. The ploy also allows him to suggest things without affirming them, to force us to make up our minds as to which is more plausible, while also pushing one option as more likely. Tacitus’ spin stands out particularly clearly if juxtaposed to the account of the incident in Suetonius’ biography (Nero 19.1): Peregrinationes duas omnino suscepit, Alexandrinam et Achaicam; sed Alexandrina ipso profectionis die destitit turbatus religione simul ac periculo. Nam cum circumitis templis in aede Vestae resedisset, consurgenti ei primum lacinia obhaesit, dein tanta oborta caligo est, ut dispicere non posset (‘He planned but two foreign tours, to Alexandria and Achaia; and he gave up the former on the very day when he was to have started, disturbed by a threatening portent. For as he was making the round of the temples and had sat down in the shrine of Vesta, first the fringe of his garment was caught when he attempted to get up, and then such darkness overspread his eyes that he could see nothing’).2 Suetonius reports an actual incident (Nero’s garment getting caught) that could be interpreted as a sign from the gods; Tacitus construes divine agency differently – he raises the possibility that they addled his brain with fear directly, i.e. without an empirical sign that others could witness (cf. numine exterrente; the formulation does not exclude the portent that Suetonius reports, but it suppresses vital information), before suggesting that the reason might be the mental disturbance caused by Nero’s prior crimes that come back to haunt him (again something that cannot be verified empirically). Put differently, Tacitus removes the incident from the sphere of empirical observation, explanation, and communication and locates it entirely in the psychology of Nero.

    seu numine exterrente: Tacitus uses a (short) ablative absolute for the first option, suggesting that Nero’s fear may be due to a terrifying experience at the hands of the divine power of the temple. The implied accusative object of exterrente is eum/Neronem. The strengthened verb exterrente makes clear just how much the numen managed to frighten the emperor (if it did).

    seu facinorum recordatione numquam timore vacuus: The second option is stressed by its length and its more complex syntax. The advanced position of facinorum draws attention to them as the likely cause of Nero’s sudden trembling. The litotes of numquam timore vacuus stresses the power of the frightful memories lodged in his brain. It is an arresting image: Nero, as he looks upon the images of the gods, breaking down in terror as he remembers the crimes he has committed.

    facinorum: Tacitus will be thinking especially of Nero’s murder of his half-brother Britannicus in AD 55, whose drink he poisoned; of his mother Agrippina in AD 59, stabbed by his soldiers at his behest; and of the many senators whom he forced to die. (The murder of Silanus is still fresh in the mind of Tacitus’ readers and, so Tacitus suggests, also stayed fresh in the mind of the emperor.) Tacitus emphasises Nero’s fear elsewhere in the Annals. See, for instance, 14.10.1 (in the wake of the matricide): Sed a Caesare perfecto demum scelere magnitudo eius intellecta est. reliquo noctis modo per silentium defixus, saepius pavore exsurgens et mentis inops lucem opperiebatur tamquam exitium adlaturam (‘But only with the completion of the crime was its magnitude realized by the Caesar. For the rest of the night, sometimes dumb and motionless, but not rarely starting in terror to his feet with a sort of delirium, he waited for the daylight which he believed would bring his end.’).

    [Extra information:

    For Nero suffering from bouts of religious anxiety, see also Suetonius, Nero 46.1: Terrebatur ad hoc evidentibus portentis somniorum et auspiciorum et omnium, cum veteribus tum novis. Numquam antea somniare solitus occisa demum matre vidit per quietem navem sibi regenti extortum gubernaculum trahique se ab Octavia uxore in artissimas tenebras et modo pinnatarum formicarum multitudine oppleri, modo a simulacris gentium ad Pompei theatrum dedicatarum circumiri arcerique progressu; asturconem, quo maxime laetabatur, posteriore corporis parte in simiae speciem transfiguratum ac tantum capite integro hinnitus edere canoros (‘In addition he was frightened by manifest portents from dreams, auspices and omens, both old and new. Although he had never before been in the habit of dreaming, after he had killed his mother it seemed to him that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands; that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness, and that he was covered with a swarm of winged ants, and now was surrounded by the statues of the nations which had been dedicated in Pompey’s theatre and stopped in his tracks. A Spanish steed of which he was very fond was changed into the form of an ape in the hinder parts of its body, and its head, which alone remained unaltered, gave forth tuneful neighs’).]

    cunctas sibi curas amore patriae leviores dictitans: amore is an ablative of comparison after the comparative leviores. Nero stressed repeatedly (note the frequentative verb dictito) that love for this country outweighed any of his other concerns. But the way that Tacitus puts the point still makes Nero appear selfish: sibi is a dative of interest, whereas cura, in the parlance of politics, refers to the diligent management of state affairs, public duties, and civic responsibilities. The use of this term here in the basic sense of ‘thought’ or ‘concerns’ is thus disconcerting (not to say perverse), especially in contrast to the effusive and emotional term amor. It points up Nero as an incompetent regent of the empire, who oscillates between selfish interests and empty gestures of affection for his people.

    36.3 This and the next two sentences are in indirect speech, reporting what Nero said.

    vidisse maestos civium vultus, audire secretas querimonias: The two asyndetic phrases are well balanced: two verbs of perceiving at the beginning (vidisse, audire; see end of note for the shift from perfect to present), followed by two accusative objects, consisting of an attribute (maestos, secretas) and a noun (vultus, querimonias), with the genitive civium best understood as modifying both. Despite the placement of civium in the first phrase, the second is slightly, climactically longer in terms of syllables: 3 + 2 + 3 + 2 vs. 3 + 3 + 5. Alliteration (vidissevultus) adds further stylistic colour to the first phrase and homoioteleuton (-tas, -as) to the second. Such rhetorical balance is very un-Tacitean, but remember that here we are hearing Nero’s words – Tacitus imbues the speech with the sort of oratorical patterning that, for him, suggests hypocrisy. The change of tense of the infinitives is significant: the perfect vidisse tells us that the people’s faces struck him in the past, but the present audire implies that the complaints of the people are still ringing in his ears, even though they are private. That Nero is partial to what people say ‘off-record’ as it were could be open to a sinister interpretation: he has spies everywhere.

    tantum itineris aditurus esset: itineris is a partitive genitive dependent on tantum. Any absence of the emperor from Rome was a potential source of disquiet for the urban populace, and Nero’s trip to Alexandria would have taken several months.

    cuius ne modicos quidem egressus tolerarent: cuius, the genitive singular of the relative pronoun, refers to Nero and depends on egressus (accusative plural). The (implied) subject is the citizens. Nero, putting words into the mouths of his subjects, claims they cannot bear any absence of his: if they cannot even (ne ... quidem) endure his short (modicos) absences from the city, how are they to cope with a long one? Tacitus mischievously has Nero out himself here as someone with a tendency towards immoderate actions – recall 15.23 where he portrayed the emperor as immodicus in both joy and grief.

    sueti adversum fortuita aspectu principis refoveri: suetus is the perfect participle of suesco (‘accustomed’), here construed with the infinitive (refoveri). fortuita is an adjective used as a noun: it is a neuter accusative plural (‘the contingencies of life’) governed by the preposition adversum. Nero imagines the people consoled in the face of adversity by his presence. The vivid verb refoveri (literally, ‘to be warmed up again’ = ‘to be revived’) gives a sense of Nero’s warming glow for his people, and this is caused not even by his actions but merely by being seen (aspectu). (It is tempting to take refoveri as a proleptic reference to the fire – Nero sure knows how to make the city glow...)

    ergo ut in privatis necessitudinibus proxima pignora praevalerent, ita in re publica populum Romanum vim plurimam habere parendumque retinenti: The indirect speech continues: after the ut-clause we first have populum Romanum as the subject accusative and habere as the infinitive verb, to which Tacitus attaches a further clause, but with a change in construction: the -que links habere and the impersonal gerundive parendum [sc. esse]. parere takes a dative object, here an (elided) ei, referring back to populum Romanum, and governing the present participle retinenti. (One has to supply the accusative object for retinere – i.e. Nero.) In all, then, Nero is saying that ‘the people, which are holding [him] back, must be obeyed.’ Nero here makes a show of modesty, conceding that even the emperor must acquiesce to the wishes of the Roman people. Arguably, Tacitus here hints at the alternative scenario that we capture in Suetonius, namely that Nero was literally ‘held back’ (if momentarily) by a divine power in the temple of Vesta when his garment was caught (see Nero 19.1, cited above). Note the pronounced p-alliteration throughout by which Tacitus links – ominously for anyone harbouring republican sentiments – the private sphere (cf. privatis, proxima, pignora, praevalerent) with the public sphere (cf. publica, populum, plurimam, parendum), implying an assimilation of the two: under bad rulers such as Nero, who did not live up to the ideal of the civilis princeps, the res publica became for all intents and purposes coextensive with the household of the emperor.

    privatis necessitudinibus: ‘family obligations.’

    proxima pignora: pignora, the subject of the ut-clause, here has the meaning of ‘kin’ – in the context of family obligations the closest kin has the greatest influence.

    36.4 haec atque talia plebi volentia fuere: volentia is the present participle in the nominative neuter plural of volo (‘matters desirable’ – plebi: to the people) and predicative complement to haec atque talia. It alliterates with voluptatum, suggesting that the people are slaves to desire.

    voluptatum cupidine et, quae praecipua cura est, rei frumentariae angustias, si abesset, metuenti: Tacitus goes on to explain why the things Nero said pleased the people, linking, with et, an ablative of cause (voluptatum cupidine) and a participle with causal force (metuenti: it is in the dative since it modifies plebi). angustias is the accusative object of metuenti and the antecedent of the relative pronoun quae. Authors steeped in aristocratic ideology like Tacitus routinely mis-represent the people as motivated by base instincts and desires – a condition that Juvenal captures for ancient Rome in the pithy phrase panem et circenses (‘bread and circuses’). See Satire 10.78–81:3

    nam qui dabat olim

    imperium, fasces, legiones, omnia, nunc se

    continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,    80

    panem et circenses.

    [The people that once used to bestow military commands, high office, legions, everything, now limits itself. It has an obsessive desire for two things only – bread and circuses.]

    Tacitus, too, puts the emphasis on entertainment and food supply. The latter concern is expressed in much longer and more complex syntax, compared to the two words (voluptatum cupidine) dedicated to entertainment. The variatio lends more weight to the latter, not least because of the emphatic final position of metuenti, which renders it apparent that fear of corn shortage was greater than desire for games. We should note that these real reasons for the people’s anxiety about Nero’s absence bear no relation to Nero’s speech: there’s nothing here about Nero the father-figure or the consolation he gives in adversity; according to Tacitus, the people just care about being entertained and their bellies.

    voluptatum cupidine: Tacitus here voices his (elitist) despair at the (perceived) pleasure-loving populace and the ease with which they are won over. The two words (desire for pleasures) are very negative words in Roman morality: cupido represents a strong lust or desire; and the plural of voluptas is a loaded word for moralising Roman historians – rather than the more neutral meaning of the singular (‘pleasure’, ‘delight’), the plural often has the idea of sensual gratification or indulgence.

    praecipua cura: Rome’s huge population was dependent on corn from overseas, especially Egypt and Sicily. The populace were concerned that they be entertained, but even more so (praecipua = greatest, especial) that they be fed. Ensuring sufficient supply of free or highly subsidized grain to the urban populace was a major responsibility of the ruling élite, the designated officer, and, ultimately, the princeps. Neglect or failure could lead to riots.4

    si abesset: The people feared that if he was absent, then there might be shortages in corn supply.

    senatus et primores in incerto erant, procul an coram atrocior haberetur: After the plebs’ reaction, Tacitus now tells us how the upper echelons responded to Nero’s decision to remain in Rome. Their reaction is much more ambivalent, and their priorities rather different from the people’s concern with the corn supply and games. They do not wonder whether he would be better near or far, but where he would be more dreadful (atrocior), implying of course that wherever he is, far or near (procul an coram), he is a horrendous prospect. The adjective atrocior is a very strong one, implying cruelty and savagery.

    procul an coram atrocior haberetur: an introduces an indirect question, specifying two alternatives (procul or coram); haberetur = to be regarded as. The subject is Nero; atrocior is a predicative complement.

    dehinc, quae natura [sc. est] magnis timoribus, deterius credebant quod evenerat: Being undecided as to whether Nero’s absence or presence would result in the greater atrocities, they believed that worse which then actually happened (quod evenerat). Tacitus considers this psychological reaction a law of nature (cf. quae natura magnis timoribus). Do you agree?


    1 Miller (1975) 85.

    2 Caligula, too, was reported to have harboured plans to move to Alexandria after perpetrating mass slaughter among the Roman élite – a plot that Suetonius presents as the final straw that led to his assassination. See Caligula 49.2: ...periit, ingentia facinora ausus et aliquanto maiora moliens, siquidem proposuerat Antium, deinde Alexandream commigrare interempto prius utriusque ordinis electissimo quoque (‘... he perished, having dared great crimes and meditating still greater ones. For he had made up his mind to move to Antium, and later to Alexandria, after first slaying the noblest members of the two orders’).

    3 We cite the text and translation of S. Morton Braund in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2004).

    4 See in general Garnsey (1988).

    omitto, -ere, -misi, -missum: I leave aside

    in incerto: uncertain, a matter of debate

    Oriens, -entis, m.: the East

    imaginatio, -onis, f.: imagination

    agito, -are, -avi, -atum: I mull over

    dehinc: then

    edictum, -i, n.: public proclamation

    testificor, -ari, -atus sum: I declare

    perinde ... ac...: as much... as...

    super (+ abl.): about

    profectio, -onis, f.: departure

    Capitolium, -ii, n.: the Capitoline Hill

    veneror, -ari, -atus sum: I worship

    artus, -us, m.: limb

    tremo, -ere, -ui: I tremble

    numen, -inis, n.: divine power, divinity

    recordatio, -onis, f.: remembrance

    desero, -ere, -ui, -sertum: I abandon

    inceptum, -i, n.: purpose, undertaking

    levis, -e: (here) unimportant

    dictito, -are, -avi, -atum: I say repeatedly

    querimonia, -ae, f.: complaint

    modicus, -a, -um: (here) brief

    egressus, -us, m.: excursion, trip

    tolero, -are, -avi, -atum: I bear, endure

    suetus, -a, -um: accustomed

    fortuita, -orum, n.pl.: misfortunes

    aspectus, -us, m.: sight

    refoveo, -ere, -fovi, -fotum: I revive

    ut ... ita...: just as... so...

    necessitudo, -inis, f.: relationship

    pignus, -oris, n.: tie, bond

    praevaleo, -ere, -ui: I have superior force, prevail

    volens, -entis: (here) welcome

    voluptas, -atis, f.: pleasure

    cupido, -inis, f.: desire

    praecipuus, -a, -um: greatest, especial

    res frumentaria, rei frumentariae, f.: corn supply

    angustiae, -arum, f.pl.: shortage

    metuo, -ere, -ui, -utum: I fear

    primores, -um, m.pl.: leading men

    coram (adv.): among them, close at hand

    habeo, -ere, -ui, -itum: (here) I consider

    quae natura (sc. est): as is the usual way

    deterius: (here) the worse alternative

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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/15-36