Thrasea Paetus and the so-called ‘Stoic opposition’

The first figure we encounter in the set text is not the emperor Nero but a senator by the name of Thrasea Paetus (or Paetus Thrasea). He had an illustrious political career, rising to the rank of consul in AD 56 (early in Nero’s reign), even though he frequently embarked on a course of collision with the emperor. Within the literary world of the Annals, he is a character of structural significance. His appearances (and absences) are always well-timed and strategic: ‘Though he [sc. Thrasea Paetus] had been suffect consul in A.D. 56, he does not appear on the pages of Tacitus till two years later. Indeed Tacitus carefully controls his appearances to produce a consistent pattern of one who continuously sought, not always without success, to uphold libertas senatoria.’61 One striking example of this policy involves his presence in the first few chapters of the set text (15.20–22), which form the tail end of Tacitus’ account of AD 62. As such, his direct speech here correlates with his appearance (including a direct speech) at the beginning of Tacitus’ account of the same year (14.48–49). These paragraphs cover the trial of Antistius and form a ‘twin’ to 15.20–22. The passage is lengthy, but, quite apart from its structural significance, also offers acute insights into the relationship between senate and emperor and into the character of Thrasea Paetus. It is thus worth citing in full (14.48–49):

(48) P. Mario L. Afinio consulibus Antistius praetor, quem in tribunatu plebis licenter egisse memoravi probrosa adversus principem carmina factitavit vulgavitque celebri convivio, dum apud Ostorium Scapulam epulatur. exim a Cossutiano Capitone, qui nuper senatorium ordinem precibus Tigellini soceri sui receperat, maiestatis delatus est. tum primum revocata ea lex, credebaturque haud perinde exitium Antistio quam imperatori gloriam quaeri, ut condemnatum a senatu intercessione tribunicia morti eximeret. et cum Ostorius nihil audivisse pro testimonio dixisset, adversis testibus creditum; censuitque Iunius Marullus consul designatus adimendam reo praeturam necandumque more maiorum. ceteris inde adsentientibus, Paetus Thrasea, multo cum honore Caesaris et acerrime increpito Antistio, non quidquid nocens reus pati mereretur, id egregio sub principe et nulla necessitate obstricto senatui statuendum disseruit: carnificem et laqueum pridem abolita, et esse poenas legibus constitutas, quibus sine iudicum saevitia et temporum infamia supplicia decernerentur. quin in insula publicatis bonis, quo longius sontem vitam traxisset, eo privatim miseriorem et publicae clementiae maximum exemplum futurum.

(49) Libertas Thraseae servitium aliorum rupit, et postquam discessionem consul permiserat, pedibus in sententiam eius iere, paucis exceptis, in quibus adulatione promptissimus fuit A. Vitellius, optimum quemque iurgio lacessens et respondenti reticens, ut pavida ingenia solent. at consules, perficere decretum senatus non ausi, de consensu scripsere Caesari. ille inter pudorem et iram cunctatus, postremo rescripsit: nulla iniuria provocatum Antistium gravissimas in principem contumelias dixisse; earum ultionem a patribus postulatam, et pro magnitudine delicti poenam statui par fuisse. ceterum se, qui severitatem decernentium impediturus fuerit, moderationem non prohibere: statuerent ut vellent; datam et absolvendi licentiam. his atque talibus recitatis et offensione manifesta, non ideo aut consules mutavere relationem aut Thrasea decessit sententia ceterive quae probaverant deseruere, pars, ne principem obiecisse invidiae viderentur, plures numero tuti, Thrasea sueta firmitudine animi et ne gloria intercideret.

[(48) In the consulate of Publius Marius and Lucius Afinius, the praetor Antistius, whose reckless conduct in his plebeian tribuneship I have already mentioned, composed a number of scandalous verses on the princeps, and made them public at a well-attended banquet of Ostorius Scapula, with whom he was dining. He was thereupon accused of treason by Cossutianus Capito, who, by the intervention of his father-in-law Tigellinus, had lately recovered his senatorial rank. This was the first revival of the statute; and it was believed that what was sought was not so much death for Antistius as glory for the emperor, whose tribunician veto was to snatch him from death after he had been condemned by the senate. Although Ostorius had stated in evidence that he had heard nothing, the witnesses for the prosecution were believed; and the consul designate, Junius Marullus, moved for the accused to be stripped of his praetorship and put to death according to ancient custom. The other senators were approving the motion, when Thrasea Paetus, with a great show of respect for Caesar and a most vigorous attack on Antistius, argued that it did not follow that the penalty a guilty defendant deserved to suffer was the one that ought to be decided upon, under an outstanding princeps and by a senate not fettered by any sort of compulsion. The executioner and the noose had long since been abolished; and there were punishments established by laws under which punitive measures could be decreed without implicating the judges in brutality or the age in infamy. In fact, on an island, with his property confiscated, the longer he dragged out his criminal existence, the deeper would be his personal misery, and he would also furnish an excellent example of public clemency.’

(49) The autonomy of Thrasea broke the servility of others, and, after the consul had authorized a vote, everyone supported his opinion, except a few dissenters, among whom Aulus Vitellius [sc. the future emperor] was the most active sycophant, who levelled his abuse at the very best, and, as is the wont of cowardly natures, lapsed into silence if anyone replied. The consuls, however, not daring to put the senatorial decree into practice, wrote to Caesar about the general consensus of opinion. He, after some vacillation between shame and anger, finally wrote back that ‘Antistius, unprovoked by any injury, had uttered to the most intolerable insults against the princeps. For those insults retribution had been demanded from the senators; and it would have been appropriate to fix a penalty matching the gravity of the offence. Still, as he had in mind to check undue severity in their verdict, he would not interfere with their moderation; they must decide as they wished – they had been given liberty even to acquit.’ These words, and others like it, were read out, and his resentment was plain to see. The consuls, however, did not change the motion on that account; Thrasea did not withdraw his proposal; nor did the remaining members withdraw their support for what they had approved; one part, lest they should seem to have placed the emperor in an invidious position; a majority, because there was safety in their numbers; Thrasea, through his usual firmness of spirit, and a desire not to lose any of his glory.]

The passage offers excellent insights into the fraught relations between senate and princeps, achieving two things in one: (i) it illustrates some of the (unwritten) social scripts that both parties could follow to ensure more or less smooth interactions on sensitive issues; (ii) and it shows what happens when one stubborn character like Thrasea Paetus refuses to play by the rules. Let’s have a look at the script that everyone tacitly followed before Thrasea’s intervention. It would have involved a death sentence passed by the senators followed by a pardon from the emperor. If this scenario had played itself out, everybody would have benefited. First, the defendant: he would have received a slap on the wrist, but not lost his head. Second, the senate: trials of treason put this body in a difficult position. Irrespective of the merits of the case, their actions in such matters were themselves open to critical scrutiny: mild treatment of the defendant could be interpreted as manifesting latent sympathies with the culprit, whereas (overly) harsh punishment, while being a sign of outraged loyalty, could be interpreted as kow-towing to a tyrant. But when it was understood that senatorial severity was a first step in a dialectic that set the princeps up for an act of mercy, senators had good reasons for leaning towards passing a harsh verdict since they knew it would not be executed – while also pleasing the emperor. Third, the princeps: Nero hoped for a verdict of guilty and a capital sentence as an opportunity to display his mild disposition by pardoning the defendant despite his evident guilt – a scenario in which he would get the best of both worlds: a firm show of senatorial loyalty, plus personal credit for behaving like a civilis princeps.

Tacitus’ narrative makes it clear that everyone involved played according to this script – until Thrasea Paetus decided to interfere. Then chaos ensued. The senators were put on the spot. As soon as the capital sentence ceases to be unanimous, as soon as alternatives are available, they find themselves in a double bind. Once a milder option is on the table, they lose face if they remain in favour of the death penalty; but voting in favour of the milder proposal – they know – will incur the displeasure of the princeps. The dilemma is rendered more uncomfortable by the fact that individual senators could exploit the opportunity to score points for themselves. In this case, Aulus Vitellius opposed Thrasea Paetus, in the full knowledge of endorsing the alternative favoured by the princeps – and (one assumes) in the hope of being rewarded for this show of loyalty. Viewed like this, what Tacitus calls senatorial servility (servitium) emerges as pragmatism and common sense, and what he calls the independence (libertas) of Thrasea Paetus as a rather irritating act of self-promotion that leaves everybody else worse off.

Let’s look at the fall-out: by arguing for a more lenient sentencing by the senate Thrasea Paetus pre-empts the role that Nero expected to play himself. (Reading his speech intertextually with Caesar’s position in the senatorial debate over the fate of the Catilinarian conspirators as reported by Cicero (in his fourth speech against Catiline) and Sallust (in his Bellum Catilinae) heightens the affront: it implies that Paetus is here play-acting as emperor by imitating the founding figure of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.)62 The senate (including the consuls who had proposed the death penalty) are forced to change tack. The princeps is deprived of his opportunity to show mercy and grudgingly concedes what he would have gladly imposed. Aulus Vitellius aggravates the divisions within the senate for personal gain (just like Thrasea). Everyone is insecure and anxious once the princeps has been upset. The episode thus illustrates Tacitus’ earlier critical comment on Thrasea’s adversarial stance towards the princeps, when he notes that Thrasea’s ostentatious departure from a senate-meeting as protest against excessive adulation of the emperor ‘caused danger for himself without initiating freedom for the rest’ (Annals 14.12.1: sibi causam periculi fecit, ceteris libertatis initium non praebuit).

Within the senate, then, Thrasea’s refusal to play along in what was ultimately a carefully orchestrated social drama that enabled senators and emperor to negotiate their positions vis-à-vis one another, was bound to prove divisive: it forced all other senators to adopt a much more exposed stance on the matter. From the point of view of the retrospective historiographer, of course, Thrasea’s intervention was a godsend: it provided Tacitus with the opportunity to assess the character of the senate as a whole and of specific individuals on a spectrum of possibilities, ranging from ‘unscrupulous opportunist’ to ‘servile’ to ‘principled and independent.’ At the same time, it is important to note that Tacitus enables his readers to appreciate how disruptive a figure Thrasea Paetus was. He could, for instance, easily have enhanced Thrasea’s apparent heroism by suppressing the information that Nero planned to pardon the accused in any case: this would have made it much more difficult for his readers to recognize the social script that was playing itself out before Thrasea interfered. Moreover, he identifies Thrasea’s desire for glory as the primary motivating factor behind his intervention. This entails a tension between a principled commitment to republican norms (such as a libertas) and the self-seeking desire to inscribe oneself in the memory of the Roman people (gloria) – at whatever cost.63

It is worth linking this discussion to Tacitus’ biography – and authorial preferences. The type of the ‘principled troublemaker’ or, to use a more positive label, ‘martyr of republican libertas’ is a recurrent figure in Tacitus’ oeuvre, with Thrasea Paetus, who was invited to commit suicide under Nero, and his son-in-law Helvidius Priscus, who met the same fate under Vespasian, leading the way. Their seemingly upright conduct and apparent adherence to a set of old-fashioned norms and values, their courage, and defiance to death, make for excellent foils for bad emperors.64 But Tacitus’ own position vis-à-vis this kind of senatorial peer was decidedly ambivalent – and unsurprisingly so. Both he himself and his father-in-law Agricola had stellar careers under ‘bad’ emperors. It is therefore not without interest that Tacitus in the Agricola explicitly contrasts the futile, self-serving desire for immortality through heroic suicide that motivated the martyrs with the commitment to civic duties and service to the res publica that underwrote the public career of his father-in-law (Agricola 42.3–4):

proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris: Domitiani vero natura praeceps in iram, et quo obscurior, eo inrevocabilior, moderatione tamen prudentiaque Agricolae leniebatur, quia non contumacia neque inani iactatione libertatis famam fatumque provocabat. sciant, quibus moris est inlicita mirari, posse etiam sub malis principibus magnos viros esse, obsequiumque ac modestiam, si industria ac vigor adsint, eo laudis excedere, quo plerique per abrupta sed in nullum rei publicae usum ambitiosa morte inclaruerunt.

[It is characteristic of human nature to hate whom you have harmed: but the natural disposition of Domitian, quick to anger, and the more inscrutable the more implacable, was nonetheless mollified by the moderation and circumspection of Agricola, because he was not trying to call forth fame and death with obstinacy and empty boasts of freedom. Let those, whose habit it is to admire what is forbidden, know that even under bad emperors there can be great men; and that obedience and unassuming conduct, as long as they are coupled with effort and initiative, can attain the same degree of praise that many more achieve through perilous courses of action and self-promoting deaths that are of no use to the commonwealth.]

In this passage, at least, Tacitus seems to recommend a middle course between suicide and servility, well captured by D. Sailor: ‘a life that bears unmistakable signs of autonomy, signs that suffice for acquiring prestige, but that nonetheless do not lead inevitably to an encounter with the regime’s violence. Being killed by the regime was... the lone incontestable proof that you had not surrendered your autonomy to the princeps’ domination and that you did not recognize the legitimacy of his coercive powers. But there were also alternative “careers” that argued, though less conclusively, for the possibility of both staying alive and securing real distinction for considerable autonomy.’65 And this may explain why his portrayal of figures like Thrasea in his later historiographical works, while overall positive, also hints at the dysfunctional aspects of their personalities.


61 Martin (1969) 139. See also Syme (1958) II 557.

62 The phrase multo cum honore Caesaris (49) is studiously ambiguous: Caesar could be Nero – or Julius Caesar.

63 Sailor (2008) 20: ‘One telling feature of Tacitus’ treatment of Thrasea and Helvidius, then, is an understated but perceptible emphasis on their strong interest in glory.’

64 See Sailor (2008) 17: ‘what gave these men their glamour was their apparent solidarity with the cause of senatorial dignity and significance: to show adherence to a set of values shared by their peers, they had held their own lives cheap.’

65 Sailor (2008) 29–30.