We are still in AD 62, but Tacitus now looks back and reviews the omina and prodigia – strange natural occurrences that indicated the displeasure of the gods – that had happened over the course of this year. This is a regular feature of his narrative and serves a variety of purposes. (i) To begin with, it is a key generic marker of annalistic historiography, in terms of both content and form. The Romans themselves traced the beginnings of the practice of writing year-by-year chronicles to the custom of the pontifex maximus recording on a board (tabula) kept on display outside his place of residence (a) the names of the high magistrates and (b) key events of public significance, not least those of a religious nature such as prodigies, on a yearly basis. The recording started from scratch each year, but the priesthood of the pontiffs also archived the information thus collected. Some – but by no means all – historiographers of the Roman republic adopted an approach and style to the writing of history that mimicked the information displayed on the board of the high priest, presumably in part to endow their narratives with the official and/ or religious authority of a national chronicle.(ii) A key element of annalistic historiography is the repeated reference to consuls – as such, it is an inherently republican form of thinking about history and recalls a period in which the consuls were the highest magistrate in the Roman commonwealth (and the city-state scale of Rome could be governed by yearly flights of officials); annalistic historiography thus stands in latent tension to the existence of a princeps (as well as a worldwide empire). (iii) In addition to the names of magistrates, annals tended to note down anything that concerned the interaction between Rome’s civic community and the gods. Prodigies are divine signs, and their recording situates the narrative within a supernatural context.
[Extra Information: Tacitus and religion
‘Tacitus and religion’ is a complex topic that defies exhaustive discussion in the present context. What follows are some pointers for how Tacitus integrates the sphere of the divine into his narrative universe. Griffin, for instance, identifies four supernatural forces to which Tacitus appeals in his narrative to render events intelligible: (i) divine intervention; (ii) fate, in the Stoic sense of an unalterable chain of natural causes; (iii) destiny, as determined by the time of our birth, i.e. by the stars; (iv) ‘fortune’ or ‘chance.’Not all of these factors are mutually reconcilable from a theological point of view. More generally speaking, Tacitus’ narrative universe offers a fractured metaphysics: he brings into play mutually incompatible conceptions of the gods, invokes their power and presence in various ways, but only to turn a narrative corner and lament their inefficaciousness. Here is a look at some representative passages that are particularly pertinent for an appreciation of 15.23. To begin with, it is important to stress that Tacitus recognizes the gods as a force in history that strikes emperors and senators alike. See, for instance, Annals 14.22.4:
Isdem diebus nimia luxus cupido infamiam et periculum Neroni tulit, quia fontem aquae Marciae ad urbem deductae nando incesserat; videbaturque potus sacros et caerimoniam loci corpore loto polluisse. secutaque anceps valetudo iram deum adfirmavit.
[About the same date, Nero’s excessive desire for extravagance brought him disrepute and danger: he had entered in the spring of the stream that Quintus Marcius conveyed to Rome to swim; and by bathing his body he seemed to have polluted the sacred waters and the holiness of the site. The grave illness that followed confirmed the wrath of the gods.]
The gods, then, go beyond sending signs of warning. They cause havoc, and not only for the princeps. In the wake of the conspiracy of Piso, the wrath of the gods somehow encompasses all of Roman society. Annals 16.13.1–2 is particularly striking because it conflates divine anger with the savagery of the princeps:
Tot facinoribus foedum annum etiam di tempestatibus et morbis insignivere. vastata Campania turbine ventorum, qui villas arbusta fruges passim disiecit pertulitque violentiam ad vicina urbi; in qua omne mortalium genus vis pestilentiae depopulabatur, nulla caeli intemperie quae occurreret oculis. sed domus corporibus exanimis, itinera funeribus complebantur; non sexus, non aetas periculo vacua; servitia perinde et ingenua plebes raptim extingui, inter coniugum et liberorum lamenta, qui dum adsident, dum deflent, saepe eodem rogo cremabantur. equitum senatorumque interitus, quamvis promisci, minus flebiles erant, tamquam communi mortalitate saevitiam principis praevenirent.
[Upon this year, disgraced by so many shameful deeds, the gods also imposed their mark through violent storms and epidemics. Campania was laid waste by a whirlwind, which wrecked the farms, the fruit trees, and the crops far and wide and carried its violence to the vicinity of the capital, where the force of a deadly disease decimated the human population at all levels of society, even though there was no visible sign of unwholesome weather conditions. But the houses were filled with lifeless bodies, the streets with funerals. Neither sex nor age gave immunity from danger; slaves and the free-born population alike died like flies, amid the laments of their wives and children, who, while tending (to the ill) and mourning (the deceased), (became infected, died, and) often were burnt on the same pyre. The deaths of knights and senators, while likewise indiscriminate, gave less rise to lamentation, since it appeared as if they were cheating the savagery of the emperor by undergoing the common lot.]
And soon afterwards, Tacitus steps back from his account of the bloodshed caused by Nero to reflect on his narrative and the impact it may have on the reader – before invoking the larger supernatural horizon in which imperial history and its recording in Tacitus’ text has unfolded (Annals 16.16.2):
ira illa numinum in res Romanas fuit, quam non, ut in cladibus exercituum aut captivitate urbium, semel edito transire licet.
[It was that wrath of divine forces against the Roman state, which one cannot, as in the case of beaten armies or captured towns, mention once and for all and then move on.]
What these passages illustrate is the uncertainty principle. In some cases, divine retribution for an act of transgression is virtually instantaneous: witness the illness that befell Nero shortly after his inadvisable swim. In other cases, the gap in time between portent and the advent of doom is disconcertingly long: one could have supposed that the melting down of Nero’s statue heralded his imminent demise – but at the point in time his end was still four years in the coming. Too big a gap generates disbelief in the efficacy of prodigies – and the gods. Tacitus himself draws attention to this problem at Annals 14.12.1–2, in the wake of the alleged conspiracy of Agrippina against Nero that ended in her death (the passage also includes an early appearance of Thrasea Paetus):
Miro tamen certamine procerum decernuntur supplicationes apud omnia pulvinaria, utque quinquatrus, quibus apertae insidiae essent, ludis annuis celebrarentur, aureum Minervae simulacrum in curia et iuxta principis imago statuerentur, dies natalis Agrippinae inter nefastos esset. Thrasea Paetus silentio vel brevi adsensu priores adulationes transmittere solitus exiit tum senatu, ac sibi causam periculi fecit, ceteris libertatis initium non praebuit. prodigia quoque crebra et inrita intercessere: anguem enixa mulier, et alia in concubitu mariti fulmine exanimata; iam sol repente obscuratus et tactae de caelo quattuordecim urbis regiones. quae adeo sine cura deum eveniebant, ut multos postea annos Nero imperium et scelera continuaverit.
[However, with a remarkable spirit of emulation among the leading men thanksgivings were decreed at all shrines, further that the festival of Minerva, at which the assassination attempt was discovered, be celebrated by annual games, that a golden statue of Minerva and next to it an effigy of the emperor be put up in the curia, and that Agrippina’s birthday be included among the inauspicious dates. This time, Thrasea Paetus, who was wont to let earlier instances of flattery pass either in silence or with a curt assent, walked out of the senate, creating a source of danger for himself, without opening up a gateway to freedom for the others. Portents, too, appeared, frequent and futile: a woman gave birth to a snake, another was killed by a thunderbolt during intercourse with her husband; the sun, again, was suddenly eclipsed and the fourteen regions of the capital were struck by lightning. These events happened so utterly without any concern of the gods that Nero continued his reign and his crimes for many years to come.]
Tacitus here mercilessly exposes the hypocrisy of the religious adulation that the emperor attracted: in spite of the fact that the son murdered his mother, emperor and senators engage in communal thanksgiving to the gods that the mother did not manage to murder her son. Given this perversion of the truth and the way that the divinities are implicated in the crime (as the agents who supposedly helped to uncover Agrippina’s plot), the numerous signs of divine displeasure do not come as a surprise. Yet Tacitus goes on to dismiss the prodigia as ineffectual because the warning they supposedly constituted resulted neither in a change of behaviour and ritual amendment to avert the apparently imminent danger nor in supernatural punishment of the real criminal, the emperor. The fact that Nero kept on living a life of crime for years to come suggests to Tacitus that the apparent portents lacked divine purpose. Moreover, as the passage from Annals 16 that we just cited illustrates, before Nero gets his comeuppance he visits Roman society like a wrathful divinity himself. Ultimately, divine efficacy in Roman history has become inscrutable and unpredictable. The world that Tacitus records eludes easy understanding. Some aspects of it are both re-prehensible and incom-prehensible. Communication at all levels is seriously distorted. No one’s listening to sage correctives in the senate-house (from our Saint Thrasea), and no one’s listening to alarm-bells set off by that other throwback voice looking out for Rome – heaven-sent scary stuff.]
4 We cite the text and translation by D. A. Russell in the Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass., 2001).
5 Fans of J. K. Rowling’s Harry-Potter saga may wish to compare Tacitus’ passage with the ‘Fiendfyre’ that rages through the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Chapter 31: ‘The Battle of Hogwarts’: ‘It was not normal fire..: as they turned a corner the flames chased them as though they were alive, sentient, intent upon killing them. Now the fire was mutating, forming a gigantic pack of fiery beasts... .’
6 Paul (1982) 147–48.