The Meeting of the Senate

Chapters 1–18 of Annals 15 cover developments in Rome’s war against Parthia. In 15.19 (i.e. the chapter before the set text starts), Tacitus’ focus shifts back to domestic matters. Unethical senatorial careerism comes back onto the agenda. He records that members of Rome’s ruling élite increasingly exploited a legal loophole to circumvent a stipulation of the lex Papia Poppaea de maritandis ordinibus (‘Papian-Poppaean law on marrying categories’). The law, which was part of Augustus’ legislative initiatives concerning morals and marriage, ensured preferential treatment of candidates for high-powered posts in the imperial administration who had one or more children.2 As Cassius Dio put it (53.13.2): ‘Next he [sc. Augustus] ordained that the governors of senatorial provinces should be annual magistrates, chosen by lot, except when a senator enjoyed a special privilege because of the large number of his children or because of his marriage.’3 To receive the legal benefits without going through the trouble of raising children, childless careerists began to adopt young men shortly before the appointment or election procedure, only to release them again soon after securing the desired post. This practice of ‘fictive adoption’ (ficta or simulata adoptio), which, as Tacitus notes in his inimitable style, enabled the practitioners to become fathers without anxiety and childless again without experiencing grief (sine sollicitudine parens, sine luctu orbus), caused massive resentment among those who invested time and effort in the raising of children. They appealed to the senate, which issued a decree that no benefits of any kind be derived from such sham adoptions (15.19.4, the last sentence of the chapter):

factum ex eo senatus consultum, ne simulata adoptio in ulla parte muneris publici iuvaret ac ne usurpandis quidem hereditatibus prodesset.

[A senatorial decree was thereupon passed, ruling that a feigned adoption should not assist in any way in gaining a public appointment, nor even be of use in taking up an inheritance.]

Then a sudden transition in narrative registers occurs. With the first word of the set text (exim), we join the senate meeting, in which this decree came to pass, and witness the next item on the agenda in ‘real time’ (as it were): the lawsuit against the Cretan power-broker Claudius Timarchus. From then on we we get a blow-by-blow account of the proceedings and are even treated to a direct speech from the Stoic Thrasea Paetus (20.3–21.4). This meeting of the senate, which suddenly comes to life, is the last event of AD 62 that Tacitus reports in detail. As such it harks back to how his account of the year began at 14.48: also with a lawsuit and a meeting of the senate in which the same figure starred as here – Thrasea Paetus. For a proper appreciation of 15.20–22, and in particular its protagonist, we therefore need to know of this earlier occasion – which we accordingly discuss at some length in our Introduction (see section 6).


2 The law was introduced by the bachelors (!) Marcus Papius Mutilus and Quintus Poppaeus Secundus, two of the consuls of AD 9 (hence lex Papia Poppaea). This piece of legislation was an adjustment of the more famous (and, among members of the ruling élite, highly unpopular) lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus (‘Julian law on marrying categories’) that Augustus passed in 18 BC. For further details (including our sources in translation) see Cooley (2003) 353–72.

3 For Cassius Dio, we cite the translation by Earnest Cary in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. and London 1914–1927).