15.42

[1] Cēterum Nerō ūsus est patriae ruīnīs extrūxitque domum in quā haud proinde gemmae et aurum mīrāculō essent, solita prīdem et luxū vulgāta, quam arva et stāgna et in modum sōlitūdinum hinc silvae inde aperta spatia et prōspectūs, magistrīs et māchinātōribus Sevērō et Celere, quibus ingenium et audācia erat etiam quae nātūra dēnegāvisset per artem temptāre et vīribus prīncipis inlūdere. [2] namque ab lacū Avernō nāvigābilem fossam usque ad ōstia Tiberīna dēpressūrōs prōmīserant squālentī lītore aut per montēs adversōs. neque enim aliud ūmidum gignendīs aquīs occurrit quam Pomptīnae palūdēs: cētera abrupta aut ārentia ac, sī perrumpī possent, intolerandus labor nec satis causae. Nerō tamen, ut erat incrēdibilium cupītor, effodere proxima Avernō iuga conīsus est; manentque vestīgia inritae speī.

Study Questions

42.1:

  • Analyse the design of Nero usus est patriae ruinis extruxitque domum, thinking particularly about the contrasts Tacitus is drawing.
  • State and explain the case of miraculo. What does the subjunctive essent indicate here?
  • What type of dative is quibus?

42.2:

  • Parse depressuros.
  • How does Tacitus’ choice and position of words in squalenti litore aut per montes adversos convey the difficulty of this project?

Stylistic Appreciation:

How does Tacitus underscore the extravagance and vanity of Nero’s building programme after the fire?

Discussion Point:

What are we to make of the contrast between ars and natura in this chapter? Have you encountered this polarity elsewhere in the classical world? Was it admirable to be an incredibilium cupitor? Is it admirable now? Nero was the last emperor of his dynasty (the Julio-Claudians); the emperors of the next (Flavian) dynasty built all over Nero’s great rus in urbe. Why do you think they did this? How might the fact that the dynasty to which Nero belonged ended with his death have affected our understanding of him?

42.1 ceterum: Not a strongly adversative ‘but’ (like at), but more expressing simultaneity: while others tried to probe into the deeper meaning of the catastrophe, Nero is busy taking advantage of it.

Nero usus est patriae ruinis et extruxit domum: A cuttingly short start as we return to Tacitus’ narrative. usus est makes clear how Nero calculatingly saw the large-scale destruction as an opportunity, and Tacitus brings out the emperor’s apparent lack of patriotism (we remember Chapter 36) in the striking phrase patriae ruinis and enhances the effect further by expressing one idea (‘Nero used Rome’s ruins to build a house for himself’) in two separate clauses, each with a finite verb: ‘he used Rome’s ruins and built a house’ (contrast his moonshine over the sideshow non-event at 34.1). The sentence acquires its punch owing to two interrelated contrasts: between ruinis and extruxit; and between patriae (the common fatherland) and domus (Nero’s private house). These give the sentence real bite, developing the sense of Nero turning public misery into his own private gain. See further Annals 15.52.1, where we get a view of the building focalized by the conspirator Piso, who considers the palace a particularly apt location to assassinate the emperor: in illa invisa et spoliis civium extructa domo (‘in that hated palace reared from the spoils of his countrymen’). The house in question is the so-called ‘Golden House.’ The enormous project was not yet completed at Nero’s death, and Vespasian ordered it to be abandoned. He used part of the area to construct the Colosseum instead – which derives its name from the colossal statue of Nero mentioned by Suetonius in the passage cited above.

in qua haud proinde gemmae et aurum miraculo essent ... quam: The subjects of the relative clause are gemmae et aurum, with the latter hinting at the name of the house; the subjunctive essent expresses purpose (just as the dative miraculo). haud proinde ... quam goes together (proinde ... quam: ‘in the same way or degree as’). Tacitus does not omit to mention that there was an abundance of precious metal and stones, but goes on to say that even these weren’t the most amazing thing about the Domus Aurea.

solita pridem et luxu vulgata: The phrase, in the neuter nominative plural, stands in apposition to the subjects of the relative clause, i.e. gemmae et aurum. solita ... vulgata frame the further specifications of time (pridem) and of quality (luxu). Even the lavishness of the gold and gems of the palace were barely noteworthy in an age of such extravagance. The emphatic solita (‘familiar’) underlines how commonplace these riches were; pridem (‘long since’) suggests the long-term decline under emperors like Caligula and Nero; the moralising luxu, an ablative of respect, adds to this tone of decadence; and vulgata (coming from vulgus, the mob) implies even the common people were accustomed to such splendour (luxu vulgata = vulgaria). On Tacitus’ preference for uncommon over common diction (in this case luxu instead of luxuria) see above on 37.1: celeberrimae luxu famaque epulae fuere.

quam arva et stagna et in modum solitudinum hinc silvae inde aperta spatia et prospectus [sc. miraculo essent]: A long, polysyndetic list of the rural elements of Nero’s palace, with extra emphasis from the sibilant alliteration. The phrase hinc ... inde... conveys the extent of the estate, spreading out on all sides. Tacitus uses the striking noun solitudo (‘lone wilderness’) to make clear how the landscapers created the elements of wild nature in the centre of Rome. It was common for great Roman villas in the countryside to recreate aspects of nature (‘improvements on Nature’); but Tacitus makes clear both the scale of Nero’s efforts and the novelty of doing this in the heart of the city.

magistris et machinatoribus Severo et Celere: A nominal ablative absolute with magistris et machinatoribus in predicative position. We know nothing else about Severus and Celer. The alliteration and use of two nouns to describe them suggest the many skills and artistry of these men; machinatoribus especially implies great technical ability.

quibus ingenium et audacia erat etiam quae natura denegavisset per artem temptare et viribus principis inludere: The relative pronoun quibus, which is in the dative of possession, refers back to Severus and Celer. ingenium again underscores the talent of these men; audacia, however, is not necessarily a positive quality, and can hint at arrogance and recklessness, especially in this context. The architects and engineers are out to challenge the restrictions of nature. The antecedent of quae (and the accusative object of temptare) is an implied ea. The contrasts of this nicely wrought sentence stress how these men viewed nature’s laws as no obstacle: natura (nature) opposes artem (human skill); and temptare challenges denegavisset.

et viribus principis inludere: Tacitus finishes with a cutting and unequivocally negative comment on these men. Their skills are not only in surpassing nature, but also in squandering money. The vivid verb inludere (‘fool away’), from ludo (‘play’), suggests the frivolity and vanity of the projects these men spent money on; and it is juxtaposed to principis to remind us powerfully of who is behind this (and whose resources are being wasted). viribus is dative with inludere.

42.2 The idea of the canal was to link the bay of Naples, through Lake Avernus (there was already a canal from the sea to the lake), to Ostia (and hence Rome). It was not necessarily a hare-brained idea: the coastline from the Bay of Naples north to Rome was very dangerous to shipping, but vital for the corn supply to the capital. (Tacitus mentions wreckage of part of the corn fleet at 15.46.2.) An attempt to eliminate this danger was therefore sensible. It is just the scale of the project that is too vast: like Nero’s planned canal through the isthmus of Corinth in Greece, and other gigantesque proofs of tyrant’s megalomania à la Herodotus’ Xerxes, the project was abandoned after Nero’s death; but not forgotten — a Nero skit in Greek preserved in with the works of 2nd-century Lucian keeps the mockery alive.

namque [sc. se] ab lacu Averno navigabilem fossam usque ad ostia Tiberina depressuros [sc. esse] promiserant: The subjects are still Nero’s architects Severus and Celer. promiserant introduces an indirect statement, with an implied subjective accusative (se) and the future infinitive depressuros (esse) as verb; it takes fossam as accusative object.

ab lacu Averno ... ad ostia Tiberina: Tacitus separates the two ends of the canal in the sentence to enact the immense length of it, further made clear by usque ad (‘all the way to’) – Suetonius, in the passage cited above, estimates the length as about 160 miles.

squalenti litore aut per montes adversos: Tacitus stresses the (insurmountable) difficulties of the project through: (i) the emphatic position of the entire phrase at the end of the sentence; (ii) the variatio of the ablative phrase and the prepositional phrase; (iii) the highly poetic and vivid adjective squalenti (barren, rough); (iv) the chiastic arrangement; (v) and climactic, final adversos.

neque enim aliud umidum gignendis aquis occurrit quam Pomptinae paludes: Tacitus continues to list problems to do with the building of the canal. The absence of water is strongly emphasised by the litotes neque ... aliud umidum (lit. ‘not anything moist’), which suggests utter aridity. gignendis aquis is a gerundive in the dative (expressing purpose). Already Caesar had tried to drain the (malarial) marshes behind Cape Circeo in Latium.1 Mussolini managed to make some headway in the 1930s.

cetera abrupta aut arentia [sc. erant] ac, si perrumpi possent, intolerandus [sc. erat] labor nec satis causae [sc. erat]: Assonance emphasises the unsuitability of the land, made clear by the two graphic adjectives abrupta and arentia. Tacitus finishes with a scything comment on the futility of the operation. Even if the alternative route were feasible in principle, the work would be too much (intolerandus), and the positives would not outweigh the problems (nec satis causae). Tacitus delays this phrase in particular to finish off the description.

nec satis causae: causae is a partitive genitive dependent on satis.

Nero tamen, ut erat incredibilium cupitor, effodere proxima Averno iuga conisus est; manentque vestigia inritae spei: Despite all of what Tacitus has said, Nero still went ahead with the project. The tamen stresses how Nero is at odds with all logic.

ut erat incredibilium cupitor: A wonderfully succinct characterisation of Nero’s attitude. The -tor ending in Latin indicates a profession (as in mercator, imperator, machinator etc), and so the word cupitor or, according to another reading, concupitor represents Nero’s love of the impossible as something he does for a living. This is also a very rare word, coined by Tacitus, and thus conveys in and of itself something of Nero’s love of the unusual.

effodere proxima Averno iuga conisus est: The hyperbaton effodere ... conisus est stresses the manifold difficulties that Nero dismissed: he pushed on regardless.

manent vestigia inritae spei: Tacitus finishes off his account of the canal by revelling in the folly of the undertaking, pointing to the traces of the failure which are still visible even today. The emphatic position of the verb manent, and the dismissive last words inritae spei, leave us with a picture of a vainglorious emperor with no understanding of practicalities.

ceterum: but

ruina, -ae, f.: destruction

proinde ... quam...: so much... as...

gemma, -ae, f.: jewel

miraculum, -i, n.: source of wonder

solitus, -a, -um: familiar

pridem: for a long time

luxus, -us, m.: luxury

vulgo, -are, -avi, -atum: I popularise, make common

arvum, -i, n.: field

stagnum, -i, n.: lake

in modum (+ gen.): in the manner of

solitudo, -inis, f.: wildnerness

hinc ... inde...: on this side... on that side...

prospectus, -us, m.: view

magister, -ri, m.: (here) architect

machinator, -oris, m.: engineer

audacia, -ae, f.: boldness

denego, -are, -avi, -atus: I refuse

tempto, -are, -avi, -atum: I try

vires, -ium, f.pl.: (here) wealth, resources

inludo, -ere, -lusi, -lusum (+ dat.): I fool away, squander

Avernus lacus, -us, m.: lake Avernus (in the Bay of Naples)

navigabilis, -e: navigable

fossa, -ae, f.: (here) canal

ostium, -ii, n.: mouth (of a river)

Tiberinus, -a, -um: of the river Tiber

deprimo, -ere, -pressi, -pressum: I sink, dig out

squalens, -entis: barren

adversus, -a, -um: (here) intervening

umidus, -a, -um: moist

occurro, -ere, -curri, -cursum: I occur

Pomptinae paludes, -um, f.pl.: the Pomptine marshes

abruptus, -a, -um: sheer

arens, -entis: dry

intolerandus, -a, -um: unendurable

incredibilis, -e: impossible, incredible

cupitor, -oris, m.: lover of, enthusiast for

iugum, -i, n.: hill

conitor, -i, -nisus sum: I strive

vestigium, -ii, n.: trace

inritus, -a, -um: vain

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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/15-42