Examples of Virtue in Tacitus’ ‘Historiae’  

text published in: Gert Partoens, Geert Roskam and Toon Van Houdt (edd.), Virtutis imago: studies on the conceptualisation and transformation of an ancient ideal; (Collection d’Études Classiques, vol. 19),  Éditions Peeters/ Société des Études Classiques, Louvai – Namur-Paris-Dudley MA 2004,  (ISBN 90 429 1544 7) [de facto published 2005]; p. 173-186.


[p.173]At the beginning of his first major historiographic work, the Historiae, Cornelius Tacitus leaves no doubt about the general atmosphere of what is to follow : opus adgredior opimum casibus, atrox proeliis, discors seditionibus, ipsa etiam pace saevom (Hist. 1,2).[1] The reader is warned in advance that the book he starts reading will not present him with much lighthearted matter. Civil war, violence, a steady change of emperors (four in the single year 69), seditions and revolts, destruction and doom, decline of religion and morals, and not the least important element, all sorts of evil practices in Rome itself. Tacitus’ list of horrific and tragic elements extends to almost a full page and results in a very grim picture : the Roman world that will be described seems nothing less than topsy-turvy. Justice becomes injustice, right seems wrong, whereas the worst and the least come on top and rule the world.

To those who approach the Historiae after having read Tacitus’ Agricola (published in 98) the gloomy picture of Imperial Rome can hardly come as a surprise. In the biographical sketch of his father-in-law, Tacitus had also been very negative about the general developments in 1st century Rome . It was a period that could be characterized as saeua et infesta uirtutibus (Agr. 1,4). The first chapters of the Agricola read like a bitter account about the tyranny and slavery that Rome had to suffer under emperors such as Domitian. Agricola’s own fate in a way exemplified what happened to Roman society at large : virtue was not rewarded and could even provoke envy[2] and repression, and was therefore best kept silent and inconspicuous.

[p.174]Tacitus’ initial warning in the Historiae appears to be quite justified. Especially in the first books, that deal with the reigns of Galba, Otho and Vitellius, a dazzling variety of dark and paradoxical scenes imposes itself. The protagonists of Tacitus’ tale seem invariably motivated by greed, avarice, and lowly lusts, or a thirst for power, or by any fatal combination of these. Who can be trusted if all forms of loyalty are lost, even those among friends or relatives ? Who deserves to be at the top, if no-one cares for the state or the common good ?

But although Tacitus leaves his readers with extremely sombre impressions about the decline of Roman morals and values, not everything is gloom and doom. A few lines at the beginning of the Historiae, immediately after the impressive list of evils and catastrophes, suggest that not all hope is lost. I quote the relevant lines in full :


Non tamen adeo virtutum sterile saeculum ut non et bona exempla prodiderit. Comitatae profugos liberos matres, secutae maritos in exilia coniuges ; propinqui audentes, constantes generi, contumax etiam adversus tormenta servorum fides ; supremae clarorum virorum necessitates, ipsa necessitas fortiter tolerata et laudatis antiquorum mortibus pares exitus.

‘However, the period was not so utterly barren as to yield no examples of heroism. Mothers accompanied sons in flight, wives followed husbands into exile : one saw here a kinsman’s courage and there a son-in-law’s devotion : slaves obstinately faithful even on the rack : distinguished men bravely facing the utmost straits and matching in their end the famous deaths of older times’. (Hist. 1,3)[3]


To be sure, these lines are much fewer in number than the earlier list of evils in 1,2. Moreover, they are immediately followed by some final remarks by Tacitus about disasters and portents, and the devastating conclusion adprobatum est non esse curae deis securitatem nostram, esse ultionem. After showing the slightest glimmer of hope and consolation, Tacitus right away returns to his habitual darker tones, and one must read almost between the lines to notice that some positive stories can be told as well. But the suggestion is quite clear: amidst the prevailing moral darkness there are some instances of virtuous behaviour, that stand out as notable exceptions.

[p.175]One may ask where Tacitus actually tells such stories. Given the overwhelming amount of negative material that makes up most of the Historiae, the good examples cannot be said to be conspicuous, but on closer scrutiny, they can actually be found. To detect them, one needs to go over the whole text with a fine-tooth comb. In the following contribution the finest ‘good examples’ are examined in some detail, to see if they present anything like a underlying pattern. It may be worthwhile to establish what role these examples fulfill in the Historiae as a whole.[4]



Insignis pietas


After the general announcement in 1,3 all attention is directed towards the fatal developments under the rule of Galba, and we have to wait for quite some time before the first ‘good example’ occurs. Galba himself does not qualify as a hero, but is rather a tragic figure, a man who almost seems to have been transposed from early Rome to a period where his qualities do not fit in. So Tacitus does quote a bon mot of Galba’s to a soldier who claimed he had killed Otho : (‘Comrade,’ said Galba, ‘who ordered you ?’ Hist. 1,35), and he praises the old emperor’s power of curbing arrogant soldiers and his fearlessness. But a man of whom it is said ‘that he had the qualifications of a ruler - if only he had not ruled’ (Hist. 1,49 capax imperii nisi imperasset) can hardly be considered a model of virtue.[5]

The first outspoken example is to be found in the person of a centurion of the Pretorian Guards, called Sempronius Densus. In Hist. 1,43 Tacitus briefly tells how this centurion is ordered by Galba to guard his heir Calpurnius Piso, and how he faithfully executes his task. Drawing his arms and openly denouncing the murderers’ treason he directs their attention towards himself and so enables Piso to escape. Hardly five lines of Latin is all that our hero gets, but he is qualified in clear terms as insignem... virum, which leaves no doubt about Tacitus’ appraisal. [p.176]We can be sure that Sempronius must have paid with his life for his act of courage, although Tacitus does not take the trouble of adding this detail : the man himself seems less important to the historian than the example of moral integrity he embodies. Interestingly, the centurion’s sacrifice is of rather limited avail : Piso does escape, but within only seven more lines it is told how he is caught and slaughtered nonetheless. This effect raises some disturbing questions : was Sempronius a real hero ? And what was the use of his sacrifice, if all that it produced was two victims rather than one ?

There were more courageous officers. Much later in the narrative, a centurion of Vitellius, called Julius Agrestis, maintains his high standards of veracity and fidelity (Hist. 3,54). He manages to be sent on a mission to Cremona , a city taken by the Flavian army, to find out the truth of the matter. Having openly announced his aim there, he is shown around by the victors. On his return, however, Vitellius does not seem inclined to believe his report. Agrestis then decides to prove his words by offering his life, now that it has become useless to the emperor anyway, and kills himself. Tacitus adds that in a variant version, he was killed by orders of Vitellius, but this does not diminish his admiration for the fides and constantia of the officer.[6]

Men of lower rank too are occasionally singled out on account of a remarkable deed. In book 4, a group of Romans has been captured by the revolting Batavians, led by Julius Civilis. When Civilis openly, but falsely declares to his troops that the Romans have been defeated, the prisoners cannot let it pass.


Ex quibus unus egregium facinus ausus clara voce gesta patefecit, confossus illic<o> a Germanis : unde maior indici fides.

‘One of these did a deed of outstanding heroism : shouting at the top of his voice, he revealed the truth. The Germans at once struck him dead, which only served to confirm his information.’ (Hist. 4,34)


During the siege of Cremona , an even more memorable deed is performed by two anonymous soldiers. The Vitellians use a fearsome catapult which enacts great slaughter, but two men from the Flavian army secretly move up to the engine and cut its ropes (3,23). Almost inevitably, they fall themselves, covered with wounds. Their names have [p.177]not been preserved, Tacitus adds, but their deed is beyond doubt. Interestingly, in these cases involving common soldiers, the noble deeds appear to be relatively successful : after the prisoner’s outcry, the Batavians sense the truth of the matter and have to prepare for battle, and due to the two Flavians’ action, the Vitellian siege engine is effectively destroyed, which must have saved many lives among the Flavian troops.



Women and slaves


Tacitus does not merely single out military deeds, but also mentions some examples of special, female courage. A fine example is given in book 2, in the context of the outrageous plundering of the innocent town Ventimiglia by the troops of Otho.


Auxit invidiam praeclaro exemplo femina Ligus, quae filio abdito, cum simul pecuniam occultari milites credidissent eoque per cruciatus interrogarent, ubi filium occuleret, uterum ostendens latere respondit, nec ullis deinde terroribus aut morte constantiam vocis egregiae mutavit.

‘A Ligurian woman afforded a fine example of courage which made their conduct the more odious. She had concealed her son, and when the soldiers, who believed that she had hidden money with him, demanded from her under torture where she was keeping him concealed, she pointed to her womb and replied, ‘He hides there.’ No subsequent terrors nor even death itself could bring her to change that resolute and noble answer.’ (Hist. 2,13)


The point is not immediately clear, but it seems to be the bon mot as such of the woman resisting her torturers. The woman may have been pregnant, or she may provokingly have invited the Othonians to kill her at the part of body that is symbolic of motherhood.[7] Whatever her situation and exact intention, Tacitus applauds her constantiam vocis egregiae and calls her a praeclarum exemplum. We are not told exactly how this story ends, but we may be confident that she was killed without betraying her son. This does not imply, of course, that the boy was saved, for he may have been found in the woman’s house or wherever she had concealed him.


Matters are slightly less clear still in the case of a woman called Epponina, the wife of general Julius Sabinus. In Hist. 4,67 Tacitus briefly alludes to the constantia of Sabinus’ friends, which enabled him [p.178] to survive for a number of years, after he had abandoned his position and feigned suicide, and the historian also refers to an insigne exemplum of Epponina. Regrettably, we do not know exactly what she did, because the story is postponed to a later part of the Historiae that has not been preserved. But here too, we may safely guess that she earned praise for her loyalty, constantia, and brave confrontation of death, which probably struck her and her husband nonetheless.

Perhaps the finest ‘good example’ is to be found in Hist. 4,50, where a group of Carthaginian killers has been sent to murder Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Africa . The man had perhaps not excelled in courage or energy, but in Tacitus’ view he was not guilty of unlawful aspirations to the throne. His case is, therefore, a just one and his execution would constitute an outrage. But it does not come to pass without a curious incident :


(...) et magna pars Pisonis ignari, quod Poenos auxiliares Maurosque in eam caedem delegerat. Haud procul cubiculo obvium forte servum, quisnam et ubi esset Piso, interrogavere. Servus egregio mendacio se Pisonem esse respondit ac statim obtruncatur. Nec multo post Piso interficitur

‘As Festus had mainly chosen Carthaginian auxiliaries and Moors to do the murder, most of them did not know Piso by sight. However, near his bedroom they happened on a slave and asked him who he was and where they could find Piso. In answer the slave told them a heroic lie and said he was Piso, wherupon they immediately cut him down. However, Piso himself was killed very soon after.’ (Hist. 4,50)


The slave’s self-sacrifice is called an egregium mendacium (a fine Tacitean paradox in itself), but the compliment does not stand very long. Even before the end of the short sentence the slave is brutally killed. The effect of his noble deed is remarkably short as well : the man he protected is killed next.[8]


More dubious cases


Among the cases reviewed until here, most gave some cause for doubt or questions, but all of them were presented by Tacitus in a favourable [p.179] light. There is, however, a small group of apparently similar ‘good examples,’ where one may seriously question this fundamental nature.

A curious case is provided by a woman called Verulana Gratilla. During the ominous siege of the Capitol by the Vitellians, she takes part in the defence of the citadel by Flavian troops. According to Tacitus, she does so, neque liberos neque propinquos, sed bellum secuta (Hist. 3,69). Since Tacitus obviously approves of the defence of the Capitol, there is a decidedly positive side to her behaviour, although there is no explicit appreciation of it in the text. Verulana’s devotion and abandon of ‘normal’ life look like a prefiguration of the behaviour of Christian martyrs, who abandon their private life and their natural family bonds for the sake of a higher aim, in their case the Christian faith.[9] The act of Verulana Gratilla is, at least, a highly remarkable behaviour for a woman, and in the absence of complimentary terms we may even detect a hint that it was considered inappropriate. Therefore, Verulana Gratilla, for all her courage, cannot stand as an unqualifyingly good example.

A second case is that of the consul-elect Marius Celsus in Hist. 1,71, who remains loyal to Galba. First he is saved by Otho himself, who pretends to put him in prison to prevent his killing by the soldiers. Otho’s motive, however, is selfish, according to Tacitus :[10] he merely wishes to have an opportunity to show clemency.


Celsus constanter servatae erga Galbam fidei crimen confessus, exemplum ultro imputavit. Nec Otho quasi ignosceret, sed deos testis mutuae reconciliationis adhibens statim inter intimos amicos habuit et mox bello inter duces delegit, mansitque Celso velut fataliter etiam pro Othone fides integra et infelix. Laeta primoribus civitatis, celebrata in volgus Celsi salus ne militibus quidem ingrata fuit, eandem virtutem admirantibus, cui irascebantur.

Celsus was firm. Pleading guilty to the charge of fidelity to Galba, he voluntarily claimed credit for setting an example. Otho treated him as if there was nothing to pardon. Calling on heaven to witness their reconciliation, he then and there admitted him to the circle of his intimate friends, and subsequently gave him an appointment as one of his generals. Celsus remained faithful to Otho too, doomed apparently to the losing side. His acquital delighted the upper classes and was the subject of much popular comment, and even earned the approval of the soldiers, who admired the very qualities which aroused their indignation. (Hist. 1,71).


[p.180]Celsus presents what looks like virtuous behaviour and some good qualities, remaining firm and loyal. But if we carefully reread the sentence, a more dubious motif creeps in : Tacitus’ Celsus is rather keen to set an example, and even claims to do so. In the end, he appears to be striving after personal fame. For him the ostentatious element, rather than the inner valour of the deed, prevails.


This shady motivation is matched by that of the other side : for Tacitus’ Otho too is mostly occupied with his ‘public image’ and cleverly exploits the case of Celsus for his own purpose. In the end, even the violent soldiers somehow feel impressed by what happens. Celsus’ uirtus is both feared and admired. However, can their irrational reaction be taken as a compliment for Celsus ? This may be doubted, for if there is a winner here, it is Otho, whose manipulation of the incident succeeds well. The ostentatious resistance of Celsus, not morally impeccable as such, is even practically annulled through its recognition and misuse by Otho. Even the plain facts are against Celsus : for all his ‘loyalty’ to Galba, he ends up as general in the army of the despicable Otho.

His example is not one of a straighforward, ‘good deed’, but covers a fairly complex pattern of virtues and selfish motives. This ought to make us suspicious of persons who show virtues such as fides and constantia : apparently even these key virtues are liable to perversion.[11] No-one can be trusted until the end of a story.


Finally, I would like to draw attention to a particularly telling example of misdirected or failed virtue. During the revolt of the Batavians, Julius Civilis sieges Vetera (modern Xanten), where Roman troops have their camp. The besieged are in a very difficult position and see themselves confronted with a dilemma : either to continue resisting and hence to earn decus, or to surrender and so to perform a flagitium (Hist. 4,60). In the venerable tradition of ‘tenacious resiliance shown by cities defending a just cause’ (the model of which is Saguntum), the inhabitants, after consuming all the animals they have inside their walls, and even resorting to shrubs, roots, and the grass that grows between stones,


(...) miseriarum patientiaeque documentum fuere, donec egregiam laudem fine turpi macularent, missis ad Civilem legatis vitam orantes. Neque ante preces admissae quam in verba Galliarum iurarent. Tum pactus praedam castrorum (...)

[p.181]‘...became a model of endurance in wretchedness - until they sullied their outstanding glory by a shameful conclusion. Envoys were sent to Civilis begging for their lives. Even then he refused to receive their petition until they had sworn allegiance to All Gaul. They agreed that the camp should be plundered (...)’ (Hist. 4,60).


One cannot help feeling sympathy for the poor soldiers in Vetera who find themselves on the brink of starvation and death : what else could they do but surrender and save their lives ? But there is no such sympathy in Tacitus’ appraisal : as far as he is concerned they ought to have persisted in refusing the barbarians to enter the camp, even at the price of death. Had they followed this course, the enemy would have taken the camp anyway, but at least a noble example of Roman virtue would have been set. As it is, the soldiers have started to adopt a pattern of Roman courage, but fail to maintain it until the end. In Tacitus’ eyes, this no doubt forms a significant example of moral decline : what started as a good example turns out to be a disgrace.





If we overlook all cases of outstanding deeds and exceptional virtues in the Historiae a general pattern emerges. Instances show minor differences between each other, but the similarities are stronger.

The common aspects may be summarized as follows. The context of an insigne exemplum is generally a more or less desperate situation : a city under massive attack or a house full of armed killers. In this situation some person, either male or female, freeborn or slave, high or low in the military hierarchy, is singled out and usually, if possible, mentioned by name (slaves seem to be the exception here). The hero stands up and refuses to give in, remaining faithful to either a leader, or a relative, or a principle. Outright positive assessments by Tacitus are the rule : such persons set an exemplum praeclarum and perform an egregium facinus. Other moral keywords in the anecdotes are decidedly Roman virtues like fides and constantia, appearing in the texts as nouns, or in the derivated forms of adjectives or adverbs. In many cases, the hero delivers a poignant sententia, before he or she meets the inevitable end. For this is almost mandatory : without the crown of death, no good example seems to hold firm. Not rarely, this mention of death is rather brutal (obtruncatur, trucidatur) and comes immediately after the heroic, final words.

Most striking, however, is the actual effect of these instances of heroism. For nearly always the practical use is zero or even negative. The [p.182]soldier that offers his life for Piso in Hist. 1,43 merely postpones the second killing for a short while, just like the slave who pretends to be (another) Piso in Hist. 4,50 and thereby has himself killed without saving his master. Even cases where some success is achieved, the effect remains limited indeed. In Hist. 3,54, with the officer who kills himself to make himself believed, the effect is merely that the ‘wrong’ troups of Vitellius are roused to battle again. Another case is Hist. 4,25, where Vocula bravely has some rebel executed, a decision that briefly restores order in the Roman camp, where inconsistency remains the rule nonetheless ; before long the general is killed (Hist. 4,59).

However, would Tacitus consider these examples as failures, as we may be inclined to do ? This seems unlikely. Although he problematizes virtuous behaviour in some instances and clearly wants his readers to think and draw conclusions for themselves, in many cases his tone is remarkably unambigious : bona exempla and praeclara facinora do not seem terms that from the ancient author’s perspective allow for negative shades. He is clearly positive there.

Apparently, Tacitus did not care much about the loss of lives involved, or the ‘uselessness’ of the resistance shown by his heroes and heroines. On the contrary, in his view they stand out as rare examples of decency and old Roman virtues. What they embody and symbolize is a ‘higher good’. This somehow transcends the concrete circumstances of time and place, and allows the protagonists a claim to eternal fame. The role of Tacitus as a historian is, we may note, crucial : for it is he who is the enactor of this eternal fame.





The whole pattern shows some remarkable parallels to Christian martyrdom, a phenomenon which would start to flourish throughout the Roman empire within only decades after Tacitus wrote.[12] Christian martyrs too, according to a more or less fixed model, refuse to give in and to do what they are ordered to do (normally this amounts to bringing a sacrifice to the Emperor and making a formal statement of allegiance to [p.183]the state and its cults), even at the price of death. Their protest and death does not change much in the concrete situation they are in, but they are considered examples of lasting significance. An important aspect of this is the consolation and adhortation to fellow-believers, who feel strengthened in their Christian faith.

The Tacitean model of ‘martyrdom’ does not seem to have had direct influence upon the later descriptions of Christian martyrs, which generally show a rather less elevated literary style. However, the Tacitean model is certainly illustrative of the cultural climate in which Christian writings were bound to be received and therefore deserves some attention.

Tacitus is not the first Roman author to feel attracted by cases of desperate heroism and standing up for good causes. We may actually point to some Roman literary traditions, that no doubt have inspired him, such as those of epic and tragedy, in which many heroic deeds and words may be found,[13] or to the widespread tendency in Roman prose to record ‘famous last words’, exemplifying some courage and nobility in the face of death.[14] As far as historical events are concerned, we may also think of the ‘Stoic resistance’ under the early principate, of which Tacitus himself gives many examples in his Annals.[15] Such traditions certainly form the general context of Tacitus’ bona exempla, but they do not explain why Tacitus chose to include them in his Historiae. Perhaps here the concept of consolation and moral strengthening can help us to gain a better understanding of the Roman historian’s first great work, and thereby of a remarkable pagan model of martyrdom.


[p.184] The crucial remarks in Hist. 1,3 (quoted at the start of this paper) do not actually contain a word like solacium, but quite clearly show that the good examples of virtue possessed this quality. Much later in the work, Tacitus testifies to the uplifting effect of edifying examples, especially those from the past :


Sed haec aliaque ex vetere memoria petita, quotiens res locusque exempla recti aut solacia mali poscet, haud absurde memorabimus.

‘I may appropriately cite these and other instances from past history, whenever the subject demands either an example of good conduct or some consolation for a crime.’ (Hist. 3,51)


Solacia mali, then, appear to form one way of making sense of history, and of getting to terms with the chaos, anarchy, and lack of morality in the Roman empire. However, this Tacitean concept of consolatio may also cause us to raise our eyebrows. Earlier in his Agricola (44,5), the historian had remarked that there was a great comfort (grande solacium) for him and his wife in the premature death of his father-in-law : for this prevented him from living the last years of Domitian and witnessing his ever crueller tiranny. If this is confort, it is comfort mixed with great bitterness indeed. Or what are we to think of the comfort for the citizens of Terracina in the cruel hanging of a treacherous slave ?


Solacio fuit servus Vergilii Capitonis, quem proditorem Tarracinensium diximus, patibulo adfixus in isdem anulis quos acceptos a Vitellio gestabat.

‘Their only consolation was that one of Vergilius Capito’s slaves, who had, as we have seen, betrayed the town, was hanged on the gallows with the very rings on his fingers which Vitellius had given him to wear.’ (Hist. 4,3)


And what about the suprema victis solacia (‘the last consolations that the conquered can enjoy’) in Hist. 3,84 : namely marring the enemy’s victory, postponing peace, and fouling houses and altars with their blood ? This sort of comfort seems inextricably mixed with cruelty and a sense of self-destruction.

A particularly ambiguous case may be found in Hist. 4,85. Here Domitian and Mucianus receive the good news of the victory over the Treveri, which is attested by the enemy general Valentinus. The proud general is subsequently condemned to death.


(...) inter ipsum supplicium exprobranti cuidam patriam eius captam accipere se solacium mortis respondit.

At his execution someone cast it in his teeth that his country was conquered. He replied, ‘I have death as my consolation’ (Hist. 4,85).


[p.185]Fair enough, one would say : here we have another brave soldier who finds comfort for his misery in death. But the Latin text is not so clear about Valentinus. There is nothing against a much less favourable translation of his ultima verba : ‘he replied that he found therein consolation for his own death.’[16] Now the general becomes a rather sinister and morbid character, who finds personal relief in the general destruction of his native town. The fact that a single line of Tacitus allows for such contrasting interpretations should make us think. The very concept of consolation appears to be ambiguous and has at least some shady aspects.

Tacitus’ bona exempla inevitably share in this ambiguity. Although some of them seem as unambiguous as Tacitus can possibly present them, most of them raise serious questions. Readers are left on their own : they are invited to judge each case on account of its own merits, and cannot be sure about any example beforehand. And even if a bonum exemplum is judged to be good by itself, the consolation it inspires is mixed with pain and bitterness, with cruelty and loss. So the uplifting effect of the good examples in the Historiae is little indeed. In the end, many readers will rather feel dismal, for Tacitus’ examples have precious little hope to offer. In this respect, the difference with the later, Christian martyr stories, for all their gruesome details, could hardly be greater.




F.M. Ahl, Lucan, an introduction, Ithaca/London, Cornell University Press, 1976.


A.A.R. Bastiaensen, A. Hilhorst, G.A.A. Kortekaas, A.P. Orbán, M.M. van Assendelft, Atti e passioni dei martiri (Fondazione Lorenzo Valla), Verona, Mondadori editore, 1995 (3rd ed.).


Keith Bradley, "Sacrificing the Family : Christian Martyrs and their Kin", Ancient Narrative 3, 2003 (electronic version).


Cynthia Damon, Tacitus Histories Book 1 ( Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics) Cambridge , Cambridge University Press, 2003.


Steffen Diefenbach, "Jenseits der ‘Sorge um sich’. Zur Folter von Philosophen und Märtyrern in der römischen Kaiserzeit’, in : Peter Burschel (ed.), Die Quälen des Körpers. Eine historische Anthropologie der Folter, Köln (et al.), 2000, 99-131.


C.D. Fisher, Cornelii Taciti Historiarum libri, (OCT) Oxonii, Typographeum Clarendonianum, 1956.


W.F. Fyfe, D.S. Levene (tr.), Tacitus, The Histories (The World’s Classics), Oxford / / New York , Oxford University Press, 1997.


Henricus Heubner, P. Cornelii Taciti libri qui supersunt, Stuttgardiae, Teubner, 1978.


Vincent Hunink, "Lucan’s last words", in : Carl Deroux (ed.), Studies In Latin Literature and Roman History VI (Collection Latomus 217), Bruxelles, 1992, 390-407.


Matthias Ludolph, Epistolographie und Selbstdarstellung. Untersuchungen zu den ‘Paradebriefen’ Plinius des Jüngeren (Classicia Monacensia, 17) Tübingen, Gunter Narr Verlag, 1997.


Clifford H. Moore / John Jackson, Tacitus, The Histories (books IV-V), The Annals (books I-III) (LCL) London , Heinemann, 1962.  

    [1] Latin texts are quoted from the Teubner edition by Heubner. The word opimum presents some difficulties and various emendations have been proposed, such as plenum or grave. In the OCT edition by Fisher opimum was left obelized, but Heubner prints it without special signs. On the gloomy passage see the introductory remarks by Damon (2003), 82-83, who notes the absence of a notion of stability.

    [2] The motif of public inuidia as a response to manifest attempts at achieving gloria and immortalitas seems to have been typical for Tacitus’ days. It is also clearly visible in the letters of Pliny the Younger, who consciously avoids to give offence in this respect. See the analysis in Ludolph (1997), 60-88 (on the Agricola : 82-88).

    [3] English translations are taken from : Fyfe / Levene (1997). In this quotation the translation is based on a different reading of the Latin: supremae clarorum uirorum necessitates fortiter toleratae et...

    [4] In her note on Hist. 1,3 bona exempla, Damon (2003), 94 speaks of the ‘didactic function’ of Tacitus’ exempla, comparing Ann. 4,33,2. In the case of the bona exempla in the Historiae, such a function is fairly obvious and does not need further discussion. In this paper, an attempt is made to offer a more comprehensive interpretation of the phenomenon.

    [5] Similarly, the death of Otho, clearly a despicable figure in Tacitus’ view, presents some features that recall Roman virtues, and he dies in some style. (e.g. 2,47). But this does not make Otho anything like a real hero. Mutatis mutandis this may even be said about Vitellius (his death : 3,84-6, with one ‘noble’ remark in 3,85).

    [6] It is this constantia that is occasionally shown by other men of some quality, such as Vocula in 4,25. Disturbingly, it can even characterize men who follow an exceedingly bad course, such as the soldiers of Vitellius who assail the Capitol in Rome , in 3,73 (quippe Vitellianus miles neque astu neque constantia inter dubia indigebat).

    [7] Many readers will recall the parallel of the famous death scene of Nero’s mother Agrippina, in Annals 14,8 : iam in mortem centurioni ferrum destringenti protendens uterum ‘uentrem feri’ exclamauit multisque uulneribus confecta est.

    [8] The behaviour of faithful servants can also turn out to be more successful, of course. One may think of the ex-slave who buries Galba, after the old ruler has been brutally killed (1,49). Tacitus’ tribute to the man in question is the mention of his name : he is called Argius.

    [9] To mention a famous example, one may think of Perpetua in the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis. For a study of social relations in this text, see most recently Bradley (2003).

    [10] Cf. Plut. Otho 1, who opens his short biography with the story of Marius Celsus. In this version, Otho’s intentions seem genuine.

    [11] The motif of ‘misdirected virtue’ occurs already before Tacitus. Some notable examples may be found in epic. One may think of the tale of Nisus and Euryalus in Vergil’s Aeneid (9,176-449), in which bravery, courage, love, and sacrifice all end up in terrible, useless bloodshed and in the death of the portagonists themselves. For an example in Lucan’s Bellum Civile, see below, note 13.

    [12] For a convenient collection of the most important texts in both Greek and Latin (with Italian translation and notes), see : Bastiaensen a.o. (1995). A recent study which combines ancient texts from both Christian and non-Christian origin, is Diefenbach (2000). For ample bibliographical references to studies of Christian martyr acts, see Bradley (2003).

    [13] Most interesting of all is the parallel with the poet Lucan, whose work must have been known to Tacitus. In Lucan’s epic poem Bellum civile, we read numerous examples of protagonists and minor characters proudly professing ‘republicanism’ and ending their lives with a splendid sententia. A particularly telling figure is the centurio Scaeva in 6,138-262. Through great valour and bravery Scaeva defends the wall of a city against the troops of Pompey, sacrificing his body that is literally torn to pieces. However, Scaeva’s heroism is criticized by Lucan, who calls the man pronus ad omne nefas et qui nesciret in armis / quam magnum uirtus crimen ciuilibus esset (6,147-148). Scaeva’s virtue is perverted, since he is fighting on the wrong side, that of Caesar : infelix, quanta dominum virtute parasti ! (6,262); on the whole scene cf. Ahl 1976, 117-121.

    [14] Hunink (1992) with further references.

    [15] Interestingly, in Agr. 42,4, Tacitus had condemned men who had died gloriously and conspicuously sed in nullum rei publicae usum. This taunt was obviously intended at famous Stoics such as Thrasea Paetus and Helvidius Priscus. In later works, Tacitus shows more admiration for these men. In the Agricola passage, by contrast, he needed to sharpen the contrast with the rather less heroic behaviour of his father-in-law and, perhaps, himself.

    [16] Translation by Moore / Jackson (1962).

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