Annals 15.21 Essay


Thrasea proceeds by drawing a sharp contrast between ‘back then’ (olim) and ‘nowadays’ (nunc). Word order underscores the strength of feeling: the key adverbs olim and nunc are placed in front position and find reinforcement through two strategic particles: quidem, which is usually placed directly after the word it emphasizes and here endows olim with special resonance (‘in the good old days, as you well know’); and the strongly adversative at. The order is chiastic: temporal adverb (olim) + particle (quidem) :: particle (at) + temporal adverb (nunc). Thrasea correlates and contrasts the past and the present by means of lexical and thematic inversions. For the past, he invokes the high magistrates of the republic (praetor, consul) as well as any non-office-holders on top (privati); for the present, he opts for an undifferentiated ‘we’ (colimus, adulamur), as if to underscore the contemporary irrelevance of key political categories from republican times (see further below on privati). The collective self-indictment is reinforced by the contrast between the collective ‘we’ and the preceding de aestimatione singulorum: in the past, entire people (gentes) stood in fear of the assessment of single individuals; now all Romans are beholden to the whim and will of some random provincial. In the course of the sentence, Thrasea sketches out a complete reversal of republican realities in imperial times: we are moving from one random Roman lording it over every provincial to one random provincial lording it over every Roman. At the centre of the design Thrasea places the antithesis de cuiusque obsequioad nutum alicuius. obsequium indicates ‘(slavish) obedience’, nutus (‘nod’, but here in the technical sense of ‘a person’s nod as the symbol of absolute power’) refers to someone’s virtually unlimited power to get things done by a mere jerk of the head. By means of two strategic omissions Thrasea manages to suggest that complete nonentities are now in charge at Rome: after alicuius we must mentally supply provincialis (‘by some provincial or other’); and the ablative of agency with decernitur (a provincialibus) is also only implied. In effect, Thrasea argues that the Romans have allowed their provincial subjects to become their overlords – a complete inversion of what things used (and ought) to be.


We have reached the point where Thrasea presents his key paradox. His speech now makes a surprising turn. Up till now his focus has been on whipping up outrage at provincial conceit and the unwholesome inversion of imperial hierarchies. Now Thrasea suggests that he minds neither the provincials bringing charges nor boasting about their power – the real problem lies elsewhere: the corruption in Rome. In what seems at first sight a counterintuitive move, he argues that the provincials ought to retain the right to press charges; but they should be prohibited from issuing (which inevitably means ‘selling’) votes of thanks. The principle has wider applications: there is an implicit analogy here between the insincere or extorted laus that provincials lavish on Roman governors and the insincere or extorted laus that Roman senators lavish on the princeps. As Rudich puts it, perhaps over-assertively: ‘Thrasea Paetus’ message was only thinly masked by rhetorical generalities and must accordingly have been perceived by his audience as an attack on their own practice of adulatio.’1