Annals 15.23 Essay


Here we reach our first example of what Stephen Oakley has aptly called ‘corporate servility’ in the set text:1 The senate tries to match the anxious expectation of the emperor before and his joy after the birth of his daughter by intensifying communication with the gods on behalf of the imperial family. This was an excellent way to show loyalty and devotion to the princeps;2 on occasion, however, it backfired. In his biography of Caligula, Suetonius mentions instances in which the emperor demanded that those who had made vows for his health when he was sick kept them after his return to health (27):

Votum exegit ab eo, qui pro salute sua gladiatoriam operam promiserat, spectavitque ferro dimicantem nec dimisit nisi victorem et post multas preces. alterum, qui se periturum ea de causa voverat, cunctantem pueris tradidit, verbenatum infulatumque votum reposcentes per vicos agerent, quoad praecipitaretur ex aggere.

[A man who had made a vow to fight in the arena, if the emperor recovered, he compelled to keep his word, watched him as he fought sword in hand, and would not let him go until he was victorious, and then only after many entreaties. Another who had offered his life for the same reason, but delayed to kill himself, he turned over to his slaves, with orders to drive him decked with sacred boughs and fillets through the streets, calling for the fulfilment of his vow, and finally hurl him from the embankment.]

Nevertheless, the practice remained a standard element in the peculiar social dynamic that unfolded between the emperor and other members of Rome’s ruling élite in imperial times. We (and Tacitus) tend to see the proposed honours as manifestations of corporate servility. It is therefore useful to recall that there is another cultural logic in play. Thus Ittai Gradel argues that this was a technique for the senators to get some purchase on the behaviour of the princeps: ‘Honours were a way to define the status or social position of the person or god honoured, but it was also a way to tie him down. The bestowal of honours to someone socially superior, whether man or god, obliged him to return them with benefactions. Or, we might say, to rule well. It could indeed be honourable to reject excessive honours, and for example, the elder Scipio had excelled in this gloria recusandi. On the other hand, refusing honours also entailed rejecting the moral obligations that went with them, even to the point of recognizing no bonds whatsoever. So it would be socially irresponsible to reject all such proposals.’3


The passage functions as a node that brings together various narrative threads. Tacitus here connects the last major event he recounted in his coverage of 62 (the speech of Thrasea on provincial government) with the first major event in his account of 63, i.e. the birth and death of Nero’s baby daughter. At the same time, he takes the opportunity to recall via the figure of Seneca the early years of Nero’s reign and to drop a hint about Seneca’s and Thrasea’s dire future. More precisely, the phrasing here stands in intratextual dialogue with the very end of the surviving portion of the Annals: at 16.21–35, Tacitus recounts the death of Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus (a respected elderly statesman), as the climax of Nero’s killing spree – murdering them was to kill virtus personified: trucidatis tot insignibus viris ad postremum Nero virtutem ipsam exscindere concupivit interfecto Thrasea Paeto et Barea Sorano (21; ‘After the slaughter of so many of the noble, Nero in the end conceived the ambition to shred Virtue herself by killing Thrasea Paetus and Barea Soranus’). The last image where the text breaks off is of Thrasea dying slowly in excruciating pain after opening his veins by order of the princeps (16.35). Thrasea’s death was preceded by the death of Seneca in the wake of the Pisonian conspiracy, narrated as the climactic bookend sequence at 15.60–64, which followed a similarly gruesome pattern.


1 Oakley (2009a) 188, with reference to 14.64.3. As he points out, the examples are innumerable – and need to be appreciated as such: ‘The instances of servile behaviour that Tacitus chronicles are legion, and all readers will have their favourites; any selection that is not copious is false to the tone of his writing.’

2 See Annals 2.69.2 and elsewhere.

3 Gradel (2002) 59.