Annals 15.37 Essay


Tacitus suggests that even Nero knows deep down that the people don’t believe he chose to stay in Rome for patriotic reasons, and feels the need to win the people’s belief in his claims (fidem adquireret). The claim is made implausible, not just by his need to prove it but by the exaggerated nature of it. Nero’s use of public places for his own private purposes is ominous and foreshadows the fact that eventually, after the Great Fire, Nero will build himself an enormous mansion in the centre of the city, the so-called Domus Aurea (‘Golden House’). The emphatic position of publicis, and the arresting hyperbole of tota urbe (the whole city) being used like a private home (quasi domo) underline Nero’s abuse of Rome’s communal areas. The domus is the essence of private life, so domo is set in stark contrast to publicis locis to further stress the emperor’s usurpation of Rome for his own personal uses. Tacitus’ narrative then takes a subtle turn, gliding from a banquet staged with a specific rationale to a more general description of how Nero and his entourage carried on. He picks out the most notorious banquet (organized by Tigellinus, a freedman and Nero’s Praetorian Prefect) as an illustrative example of the public debauchery rampant in Nero’s Rome. Throughout the passage, Tacitus uses rare or unusual words or phrases to enhance the sense of exotic extravagance: see prodigentia (37.1), superpositum (37.2), tractu (37.2), abusque (37.2), crepidinibus (37.3), lupanaria (37.3), obsceni (37.3), and tenebrae incedebant (37.3). Cassius Dio, too, has a detailed description of the event (62.15):

To such lengths did Nero’s licence go that he actually drove chariots in public. And on one occasion after exhibiting a wild-beast hunt he immediately piped water into the theatre and produced a sea-fight; then he let the water out again and arranged a gladiatorial combat. Last of all, he flooded the place once more and gave a costly public banquet. 2 Tigellinus had been appointed director of the banquet and everything had been provided on a lavish scale. The arrangements made were as follows. In the centre of the lake there had first been lowered the great wooden casks used for holding wine, and on top of these, planks had been fastened, 3 while round about this platform taverns and booths had been erected. Thus Nero and Tigellinus and their fellow-banqueters occupied the centre, where they held their feast on purple rugs and soft cushions, while all the rest made merry in the taverns. 4 They would also enter the brothels and without let or hindrance have intercourse with any of the women who were seated there, among whom were the most beautiful and distinguished in the city, both slaves and free, courtesans and virgins and married women; and these were not merely of the common people but also of the very noblest families, both girls and grown women. 5 Every man had the privilege of enjoying whichever one he wished, as the women were not allowed to refuse anyone. Consequently, indiscriminate rabble as the throng was, they not only drank greedily but also wantoned riotously; and now a slave would debauch his mistress in the presence of his master, and now a gladiator would debauch a girl of noble family before the eyes of her father. 6 The pushing and fighting and general uproar that took place, both on the part of those who were actually going in and on the part of those who were standing around outside, were disgraceful. Many men met their death in these encounters, and many women, too, some of the latter being suffocated and some being seized and carried off.

What makes Tacitus’ handling of this incident special, however, is the way in which he links the orgy Nero celebrates at Rome to his abandoned plan to tour Egypt and the East. As Tony Woodman has shown in his seminal article ‘Nero’s Alien Capital: Tacitus as Paradoxographer (Annals 15. 36–7)’, Tacitus suggests throughout this paragraph that Nero has managed to turn Rome into Alexandria, a cesspool of vice and sexual license.1 By suggestively juxtaposing his report of Nero’s desire to go East and the account of an ‘eastern’ orgy celebrated by the emperor in Rome, Tacitus subliminally turns Nero into a foreign pervert, who subverts Roman standards of civilization. Put differently, ‘he others the emperor’, drawing on the prejudices about oriental cultures (and in particular Egypt) that circulated in Rome. The centre that ought to hold the empire together thus emerges as alien and rotten at its core. (The practice of suggestive juxtaposition continues in the following paragraph, where Tacitus begins his account of the great fire of Rome; in other words, he goes from moral to physical chaos, from the metaphorical to the literal ruin of the capital under Nero. The sequence strongly suggests a ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’, i.e. that the fire not only followed after Nero’s debauchery but somehow resulted from it.)


With ipse, Tacitus introduces a shift in focus. So far, he has adopted a panoramic survey approach towards recording what happened at the party; now he zooms in on the emperor. After conveying a general sense of the proceedings, we get a detailed, close-up look at what Nero himself got up to. Apparently, the emperor indulged his depraved appetites without inhibition at the party, a factoid that Tacitus uses as a foil for something even more obscene, an account of his mock-marriage to Pythagoras. Nero’s erotic license also attracted the attention of other writers. Suetonius, for instance, devotes two full chapters of his biography to the sexual transgressions of the emperor (28–29), including the tid-bit that Nero, when his aptly named freedman Doryphorus (Greek for the ‘Spear-bearer’ – Suetonius’ equivalent to Tacitus’ Pythagoras), ‘finished him off’ on his ‘wedding night’ went so far as ‘to imitate the cries and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered.’ Tacitus’ reticence contrasts (favourably?) with the sensationalist gusto of the biographer who lovingly dwells on each unsavoury detail. Whereas Nero (and his biographers) glory in letting it all hang out, Tacitus abides by the principle, enshrined in his own name [Tacitus ~ tacitus = the perfect passive participle of taceo, ‘I make no utterance, am silent, say nothing’], that some stuff is best shrouded in the veils of narrative obscurity. Put differently, Suetonius strips, Tacitus teases.2