Nero's Helpers: The Role of the Neronian Courtier in Tacitus' Annals[1]

by Marc Kleijwegt

University of South Africa

The study of the emperor Nero has undergone significant changes in the past decade. In place of the conventional focus on a reliable reconstruction of events, scholars have become more and more fascinated with the literary and rhetorical techniques of representation. The stimulating articles of Tony Woodman on Tacitus' indebtedness to literary models for some of the passages in his Neronian books reveal that the 'historical truth' about Nero and his reign, whatever it may be, is wrapped in a series of skilled literary accounts, with barely disguised moral undertones.[2]

Parallel with this development scholars have shown a growing interest in contemporary perceptions of Nero. The contributors to a volume of articles entitled Reflections of Nero have explored the roles played by rhetoric and contemporary literature in the shaping of the negative image so familiar to us.[3] As the editors assert, literature and historiography supply us with different Neros, variously tainted by rhetorical interpretations and probably none of them historical. However, a rhetorical reading of the Neronian books tends to isolate the behaviour of Nero from the main framework, and it occasionally results in facile oversimplifications of what the rhetoric is believed to do.[4] The real test-case is in determining how this rhetorical strategy impacts on Tacitus' picture of Nero. This is the problem with which this study is mainly concerned. Its main purpose is to throw light on patterns deployed by the historian to characterise Nero and his environment which have remained underassessed in recent discussions.

The Concept of Nero's Reign

One of the most intriguing problems encountered in studying Tacitus' account of the reign of Nero is the historian's emphasis on the year 62 as the decisive turning-point. The emphasis is all the more surprising for it diverges considerably from evidence supplied by the historian elsewhere. The most damning contemporary summary of Nero's reign is voiced by a tribune of the praetorian guard while demonstrating his justification for taking part in the Pisonian conspiracy: 'I was as loyal as any of your soldiers as long as you deserved affection. I began detesting you when you murdered your mother and wife and became charioteer, actor, and incendiary!' (15. 67. 2). This passage would suggest that the assassination of Agrippina in 59 has to be regarded as the starting-point for Nero's descent into tyranny.

However, Tacitus clearly disregarded this tradition in favour of the year 62. The death of Burrus and Seneca's subsequent request for permission to retire was to him evidence that Nero's reign had reached a new and more sinister stage. The change in physiognomy is further linked to the rise of Ofonius Tigellinus and to the increased influence of Poppaea Sabina. They prompted the executions of Rubellius Plautus and Faustus Sulla and the murder of Nero's wife Octavia.

The issue of a turning-point in the reign of the emperor Nero has occupied generations of scholars.[5] Several factors have complicated the search for a satisfactory solution. The Quinquennium Neronis, a supposedly felicitous period of five years under Nero which outclassed the reigns of all other emperors, may obviously be referring to the period in which Seneca and Burrus were dominant, but presents insurmountable problems of chronology and criteria.[6]

The authority which supports the idea of a Quinquennium is a good one, the emperor Trajan, who was ranked among the best of emperors by his contemporaries and later generations. The sources in which his statement is quoted, Aurelius Victor and the Epitome de Caesaribus, are, however, of dubious veracity.[7] As it is by no means sure that the idea of the Quinquennium has influenced the structure of Tacitus' account (and there are cogent reasons to assume that it has not), it is therefore best left out of the discussion here. Furthermore, the other sources which are available for Nero's reign, the biographer Suetonius and the Greek historian Cassius Dio, offer substantially different versions of the point when the moral decline of Nero's reign set in. Suetonius, whose literary requirements as a biographer were different from those of the historian, fails to mention Tigellinus altogether.

Dio has a scenario that on important points differs from that of Tacitus. Using a source hostile to Seneca, he meanders between Seneca as a teacher of tyranny and as an opportunist. Seneca and Burrus are said to have guaranteed excellent government for a while, but as soon as they realised that they could not withstand Nero's desires and passions, Dio states, they only cared for their own survival. In the epitome of Dio's account this moment comes relatively early in the reign, after the murder of Britannicus (62. 7. 5).

Tacitus' preference for the year 62 as the turning-point thus gives a singularly idiosyncratic framework to his narrative.[8] His reasons for rejecting the tradition that the starting-point of decline was the matricide are not entirely clear. It has been suggested that Seneca's involvement in a programme of co-operation between emperor and senate may somehow have contributed to the notion that all was not lost in 59, especially in Nero's relationship with the senate, until the introduction of the maiestas trials and the executions of Rubellius Plautus and Cornelius Sulla signalled a breakdown.

To test this we should take a good look at what Tacitus is saying and what it does for his narrative. Tacitus' emphasis is not on the re-introduction of the maiestas trials, since this event precedes the death of Burrus and the announcement of the change in advisers.[9] It is the latter transformation which is highlighted. The pointed contrast between good and bad advisers creates the somewhat unexpected effect of shifting the direct emphasis of the narrative from the emperor to the imperial court. Although Tacitus believed that Nero was a cruel monster and an autocrat, he clearly did not believe that the badness of Nero was sufficient in providing an explanation for the derailment of his reign. In fact, as far as Nero's behaviour is concerned, the framework of a turning-point makes little or no sense.

Is the Nero who had Britannicus poisoned less reprehensible than the one who engineered the matricide or had his first wife Octavia executed? In this respect there is no sense in arguing for a gradual slipping into depravity. The question that seems to have puzzled Tacitus was how society responded to the emperor's behaviour and at what point society became affected by it. Nero is not the sole focus of the historian's analyses. The senate and the imperial court also come under close scrutiny. To what degree did their attitude further the creation of the monster?

About the senate we can be brief. The sycophancy of this once august body is recorded in meticulous detail and is brutally exposed as far exceeding the depths of previous reigns. Flattery was already exceeding proper dimensions early in the reign when news of the crisis in Armenia reached the city and the senate proposed days of thanksgiving in anticipation of a victory. They also proposed that the emperor's statue was set up in the temple of Mars - of the same size as the god's (13. 8. 1). In the same year a humble request from the emperor to have statues erected of his father and of his former guardian Asconius Labeo was turned into another excessive show of loyalty. Nero declined an offer to have statues of himself in solid gold or silver and rejected the senate's proposal that in future years would start in December, the month of his birth (13. 10).

If anything, these incidents serve to illustrate Nero's initial good behaviour. The senate's sycophancy is the more strongly discredited when it is displayed in the face of Nero's crimes. The celebrations proposed after the assassination of Agrippina reached exorbitant proportions and caused Thrasea Paetus to walk out of the senate (14. 12. 1). A renewed outpour of excessive flattery at the death of Octavia elicits Tacitus' anger and he interrupts his narrative to make room for an uncharacteristic emotional explosion: 'How long must I go on recording the thank-offerings in temples on such occasions? Every reader about that epoch, in my own work or others, can assume that the gods were thanked every time the emperor ordered a banishment or murder; and, conversely, that happenings once regarded joyfully were now treated as national disasters' (14. 64. 3).

The most interesting area of psychological interaction is that between Nero and his courtiers. With progressive morbidness it is events at court which determine the action: the relationship between the different factions struggling to control Nero at the beginning of the reign, the poisoning of Britannicus, the matricide, the divorce and execution of Octavia. The influential role of the imperial court was of course not a new development. Augustus had used Agrippa and Maecenas as personal advisers, although they held no formal office. Moreover, every emperor had the disposal of a substantial contingent of freedmen, appointed to various official positions of administrative power. Claudius' reign had shown how influential some of these freedmen could become, with the emperor freely admitting that some policies had been proposed by Pallas. Yet, Nero's reign is not known for the powerful position awarded to freedmen,[10] and we have to wait until 61 to see blatant transgressions of Nero's accession promise to break with his predecessor's practice.[11] The development is late and insignificant compared to the influence wielded by Nero's amici.

Nero's court is peopled with characters who stand in a hierarchical relationship to him: in varying ways they interact with the emperor, coerce or control his actions. Although Tacitus shows Nero capable of undertaking action on his own initiative (the dismissal of Pallas; 13. 14. 1), in furthering his aims the emperor is mainly represented as oscillating between a need for collaborators and an aversion to overseeing. It is important to note that over time Nero comes to rely more and more on others for making his decisions for him.

The case of the matricide and Anicetus' involvement is a good example (see below). In the final stages of the reign Nero has lost all initiative in political matters and his main role is to be persuaded of what he wants by Poppaea Sabina and Tigellinus. Yet this lack of an independent point of view is not merely restricted to politics; it spills over into private matters as well, stressing the route towards tyranny. Tacitus' style of introducing courtiers in brief biographical sketches illustrates an intimate kinship with Nero's vices. Petronius is introduced as Nero's arbiter of elegance: 'dum nihil amoenum et molle adfluentia putat, nisi quod ei Petronius adprobavisset' (16. 18. 2). The whole passage is a neat condemnation of Petronius' life-style as a waste of potential, but also reflects badly on Nero who needs guidance in aesthetics. Even in his sexual vices Nero's imagination had its limitations, considering that Calvia Crispinilla is labelled as his 'magistra libidinum' (Hist. 1. 73).

In what follows I will set out along the following course. I will first discuss a set of instances where Nero's behaviour is criticised by Tacitus and Seneca's guidance is mentioned only in the second instance, or not at all. Subsequently I will move on to the influence that Tigellinus and Poppaea Sabina wielded over Nero, discuss its nature and the literary techniques used by Tacitus to display its prominence. My presentation will not differ substantially from previous discussions of Nero's reign. However, due to the perspective that I have chosen there will be a greater emphasis on Nero's lack of maturity and the openings this presented to his advisers to play an important role in his reign. In the end I hope to be able to throw some new light on the relationship between Nero and his environment as the main story-line of Tacitus' account.

Interventions of a Tutor

In a celebrated passage Tacitus states that Seneca and Burrus combined their forces in order to control Nero's perilous adolescence and that their chosen method was to direct his derivations from virtue into licensed channels of indulgence: iuvantes in vicem quo facilius lubricam principis aetatem, si virtutem aspernaretur, voluptatibus concessis retinerent (13. 2. 1).[12] Their individual contribution to this 'plan de campagne' is reflected in their personal characters: Burrus militaribus curis et severitate morum, Seneca praeceptis eloquentiae et comitate honesta (ib.).

Here and in the rest of the narrative Tacitus does not provide us with a clear perspective on how this methodology worked in practice, but he credits them with putting an end to political murders with which the reign had started. Moreover, he pays specific praise to Seneca for preventing public embarrassments caused by the behaviour of Nero's mother Agrippina, such as in the affair with the Armenian embassy. A string of events, however, shows Nero's advisers less than successful on other planes. Tacitus avows no direct criticism of them failing in their mission until their opportunistic handling of the matricide. Yet their attitude changes significantly from guiding Nero's behaviour to 'damage control'.

Tacitus' account of harmony between emperor and senate during the initial stages of the reign is interspersed with sub-plots that serve to illustrate how Nero's deepest passions became a source of anxiety and conflict. These areas of friction start out as purely personal matters, but since Tacitus does not make a clear distinction between the public and the private they inevitably have an impact on the fabric of the state. Soon after his accession, the dynastic marriage with Claudius' daughter Octavia having turned out to be an essentially love-less arrangement, Nero started a love-affair with the slave-girl Acte. This innocuous relationship soon became enveloped in issues of greater significance, such as Agrippina's hold over her son, for she disapproved of the affair, and the emperor as a possible threat to the sexuality of upper-class women.

Seneca was quick to understand the possible ramifications and set up a cover for secret meetings in collusion with Annaeus Serenus who had to pose as Acte's lover (13. 12-13). Tacitus reports that it was generally believed that an affair with a slave-girl was to be preferred over seductions of women of upper-class background. Although his name is not mentioned in this context - Tacitus glosses ne senioribus quidem principis amicis adversantibus (13. 12. 2) - this piece of evidence generally agrees with what we are told elsewhere about Seneca's method of guidance. It is telling, however, that Tacitus reports his actions after Marcus Salvius Otho and Claudius Senecio have been mentioned as the emperor's confidants. Seneca is shown to intervene at a point in time when a real crisis seemed unavoidable and then allowed Nero to continue the affair out of fear for worse excesses if it were prohibited.

At the beginning of 56 Nero started to indulge in nocturnal revelries during which he disguised himself with a wig or a cap and beat up people who returned home from parties. One incident became famous when he attacked the Roman senator Julius Montanus, who resisted and hurt the emperor. Nero made nothing of the incident, until the man was foolish enough to offer his apologies in writing, thereby acknowledging that he had recognised the emperor (13. 25. 2; Dio 62. 9. 3)[13] The information probably originated with Pliny the Elder who provides us with other titbits related to Nero's excesses, such as his use of special medication to heal bruises (NH 13. 126). We are not informed on the frequency of these escapades, but an anecdote in Tacitus (13. 47. 2-3) confirms that Nero continued to make merry in this fashion well into the year 58.

Scholars have offered a number of scenarios to show that Nero's behaviour is misrepresented here, but all these have a central weakness in common which has hampered a better understanding of this episode within the context of Tacitus' work. The standard line of thinking takes as its point of departure the assumption that Nero's original intentions were benevolent (or at least not driven by an unreasonable addiction to violent behaviour) and that these have become distorted in later rewritings of his reign.[14]

The argument relies on the assumption that Nero's behaviour is understandable within the given political circumstances of his early years in power and that the more violent aspects are later additions invented by malicious critics. In truth, the various layers of the story are impossible to tell apart and the whole exercise may be misguided. Nero's behaviour is recorded in some detail by all three historians of his reign. One expects the inclusion of such anecdotal material in Suetonius and Cassius Dio, but the fact that it was also considered worthy of mention by Tacitus suggests that it should be viewed foremost of all as an essential element in character portrayal. What is the effect if we accept the whole story as true? How do we explain it then?

Rowdy behaviour was tolerated in young men before they entered public life,[15] but it was severely castigated when it violated the norms of licence. Suetonius refutes the mitigating factor of age and ascribes Nero's behaviour to a serious character defect: 'naturae illa vitia, non aetatis' (26. 1). Other factors serve to distinguish Nero's behaviour even further from that of his age contemporaries. In contrast to the normal type of rebellious youngsters, Nero was not a young man who still had to embark on a public career. The fact that he was emperor and engaged in such rowdy behaviour as the official head of state had serious political consequences.

The copying of his behaviour by other gangs of youngsters, virtually waging war on respectable men and women, illustrates the degree to which Nero commanded the spirit of the younger generation. In his apparel Nero is supposed to have transgressed another line of decorum. Tacitus emphasises that Nero disguised himself as a slave - veste servili in dissimulationem sui compositus pererrabat (13. 25. 1) - an anomaly used as a form of moral condemnation.[16] This specific detail is indicative of the depths to which Nero is supposed to have stooped to play his character of emperor e contrario.

The story obviously has wider implications for our evaluation of the early stages of Nero's government, as it is inserted at a point when Seneca and Burrus attempted to guide the emperor's adolescence. In fact, the two advisers are nowhere mentioned in these instances of Nero's irresponsible behaviour. Is this the first sign that the two advisers have failed in their mission? It would be difficult to subsume Nero's behaviour under the vices that the two advisers diverted into licensed channels of indulgence (13. 2. 1). If they allowed Nero to behave in this fashion, it can easily be discerned that the excesses, from Tacitus' point of view, were of a serious nature, affecting the very fabric of society. Rome came to resemble a captured city (in modum captivitatis nox agebatur, 13. 25. 2).

It is tempting to suggest that Nero's behaviour - if it is indeed historical - originated from a strong psychological need to escape from the requirements of playing the role of emperor as envisioned by Seneca. In my view this is not done out of an innocuous desire to have a taste of lower-class life, a nostalgie de la boue, as Miriam Griffin has described it,[17] but the result of a dangerous wish to experiment with the darker sides of imperial power.[18]

The emperor was determined to destroy all people who had a hold over him or checked his behaviour. The first major victim was his mother Agrippina. The necessity of removing his mother from the scene is impressed upon Nero by Poppaea Sabina with whom he was desperately in love. Poppaea's plea is passionate and wily. She uses her beauty and her capacity to bear children to maximum effect. To fulfil his plans Nero selected his own favourites to help him, among them Anicetus, an imperial freedman and a former tutor of the emperor, who came up with the plan for the collapsible boat. The plan failed and in the ensuing crisis Seneca and Burrus were called upon to assist the emperor. Both kept quiet for a long time; they did not want to dissuade and be rejected: igitur longum utriusque silentium, ne inriti dissuaderent (14.7.3). Subsequently, several options were being discussed. Seneca suggested calling in the praetorian guard, but Burrus remarked that the soldiers could not be persuaded to undertake action against the off-spring of Germanicus. Burrus' final solution is as ingenious as it is fatal: Anicetus should finish the job.

Seneca's and Burrus' hesitation to be actively involved in developing a solution congenial to the emperor's expectations may have alerted him to their less than total commitment. To Nero, the assassination was vital for his survival as Princeps. Upon hearing of Anicetus' decision to carry out the second plan to murder Agrippina, Nero is believed to have exclaimed that this was the first day of his reign - and the magnificent gift came from a former slave! (14. 7. 5: ad eam vocem Nero illo sibi die dari imperium auctoremque tanti muneris libertum profitetur).

This puts Anicetus' preparedness in direct contrast with Seneca's and Burrus' attitude. The latter undoubtedly tried to minimise the damage in a critical situation, safeguarding the emperor's position (and their own), but in the process they sacrificed their integrity. Seneca was the author of a letter to the senate which attacked Agrippina's attitude, suggesting that she had wanted to become co-ruler, and blamed her for all the scandals of Claudius' reign. Nero's return to Rome was staged as a triumph, no doubt orchestrated by the ruler's advisers.

These incidents may not belong to the field of grand politics, but they provide a consistent picture that Tacitus obviously wanted to bring to his readers' attention. For non-political matters Nero comes to rely more and more on a separate network of assistants and friends who are more pliable to fulfilling his innermost passions. Otho, one of his initial confidants during the secret stages of the Acte-affair, was more or less of the same age as Nero and it may have been in Nero's company that he acquired his taste for the backstreets of Rome (Suet. Otho 2). Anicetus is specifically identified as 'pueritiae Neronis educator' (14. 3. 3) - the contrast with Seneca and Burrus, who are called rectores imperatoriae iuventae (13. 2. 1) is to be noted. By teaming up with Anicetus Nero is, in metaphorical terms, returning to his 'pueritia'. This engagement with different types of advisers produces a schizophrenic Nero - a dutiful pupil in constitutional matters, but a dangerous rebel when not involved in politics. This two-sidedness of Nero lasts until the death of Burrus and the retirement of Seneca in 62.

The Old and the New Imperial Court

The year 62 is crowded with events,[19] all of which have a bearing on the tonality of Nero's final years: the re-introduction of maiestas trials, the death of Burrus, Seneca's retirement from active politics, the divorce, banishment, then execution of Octavia, Nero's marriage to Poppaea Sabina and the heightened influence of Tigellinus. Tacitus' narrative is condensed and occasionally puts effect before historical accuracy. The emphasis is on a rapid sequence of events, glossing over the fact that these were the result of long-term processes.

The change to new advisers was surely less abrupt than Tacitus makes us believe. Seneca's influence on Nero had been significantly reduced by the episode of the matricide, but in all probability his power continued to be felt in spite of Tacitus' succinct mors Burri infregit Senecae potentiam (14. 52. 1).[20] Tigellinus, on the other hand, is reported as having persuaded Nero to allow his son-in-law Cossutianus Capito to be readmitted to the curia (14. 48. 1).[21] This had taken place before the death of Burrus and consequently before Tigellinus became praetorian prefect.

The year opens with the maiestas trials against Antistius Sosianus and Fabricius Veiento (14. 48-50). It is at this point that Tacitus' emphasis on 62 as the crucial turning-point of Nero's reign is most problematic. The matter has aroused considerable scholarly interest and has even led to doubts being expressed about Tacitus' accuracy and objectivity.[22] The historical and rhetorical issues involved are complex and cannot be entered into here, but two points which are of concern to this study may be mentioned briefly.

There is general consensus that Tacitus has inordinately inflated the two cases into an alarming prelude to a rule of terror, something which would only materialise with the Pisonian conspiracy still some three years in the future. Furthermore, Tacitus offers a rather confusing picture of two conflicting ideologies being applied simultaneously. There are unmistakable traces of impending tyranny captured in the re-introduction of the treason law. Tacitus does not make it clear on whose initiative the treason law was re-introduced - tum primum revocata ea lex is suitably vague - but since the senate was able to start such proceedings, the power behind this move was perhaps Cossutianus Capito, Tigellinus' son-in-law and the man who laid the charges against Antistius. Yet Tacitus also incorporated (or invented) a rumour that Nero was not intent on Antistius' destruction but wanted to use his clemency in case the senate proposed the harshest penalty, which indeed it initially did on the motion of the consul designate Q. Iunius Marullus. The ideology of clemency was, of course, one of Seneca's main contributions to Nero's ideology. It may well be true that Tacitus' reference to it here is unhistorical,[23] and that its real purpose may be to enhance dramatic tension in view of future events.
The accusations that were subsequently brought against Seneca (14. 52. 2-4) provide compelling evidence that the atmosphere at Nero's court had undergone a resounding transformation. The allegations are partly reminiscent of the earlier attack made by Suillius in 58 (13. 42. 2-4), especially when Seneca's wealth is brought up, but in important ways strike a new note. Seneca was accused of possessing excessive wealth and his villas, mansions and gardens were believed to outdo those of the emperor.[24]

It was alleged that he craved for popularity and allowed no one except himself to be called eloquent and that he was writing verse simply because Nero entertained a passion for it. It was also argued that Seneca openly disparaged the emperor's artistic passions and mocked him as a charioteer and a singer. Seneca is seen here as not answering to the new criteria for loyalty: feigning literary interest to please the emperor and openly underestimating the emperor's talents. The emperor is no longer a political figure in the sense that we have come to associate with the tradition of Augustus. Nero has become an artist whose achievements must be applauded, and disparagement of his talents was tantamount to opposition. These accusations mark a pattern which can also be found in the charges brought against Thrasea Paetus, whose absence at the Juvenalia was ostensibly treated on a par with the danger posed by his political ideas and dissident behaviour (16. 21. 1).

The changes that materialised within the new atmosphere at court are reflected in the augmented importance given to Nero's vices. Seneca and Burrus had realised that Nero's vices might cause problems and had channelled them into acceptable forms of behaviour (13. 2. 1). Tigellinus, on the other hand, strongly appealed to Nero because of his vices and he was soon to share in the emperor's depravities (14. 51. 3). The motivations for appointing Tigellinus as praetorian prefect concur with a pattern that Tacitus explores in a consistent manner: Nero's courtiers were increasingly selected on the basis of compatibility of interests and the sharing of vices. Tacitus develops this scenario from the beginning, but the vices are not yet reaching the dominant pattern of later years. The suicide of Narcissus in 54 is said to have only been regretted by the emperor himself, because Narcissus' greed and extravagance harmonised with Nero's own vices (13. 1. 3).

Events taking place in 62 presented to Tacitus the attractive option of bringing together and contrasting the old and the new order. The new image of the emperor which can be inferred from the accusations levelled against Seneca is the most prominent feature of the mental revolution of 62, but there is more. I shall suggest that the events of 62 are presented by Tacitus in such a fashion that they elicit an invitation to the reader for comparing them with the presentation of the regime in 54. The format of this essay is unsuited for a detailed comparison of all the elements. I shall therefore select a couple of the more salient features.

Nero came to power at the age of sixteen in a society where power exercised at an early age, let alone the supreme power of the Roman emperor, was an object of distrust. Tacitus displays this weakness in his report on rumours surrounding the first crime of the new government, engineered by Agrippina. M. Iunius Silanus was proconsul of Asia, and a direct descendant of Augustus. This was the reason for his murder (13. 1. 2: haec causa necis), but Tacitus adds yet another element. Gossip suggested that Nero, still only a boy (vixdum pueritiam egresso) and emperor through a crime, was less eligible than a mature man (virum aetate composita).

The first test for Nero came when rumours reached Rome that the Parthians were plundering Armenia. Immediately people were asking themselves how an emperor who was only seventeen could endure or repel the shock. Tacitus maliciously adds that a youth under feminine control was not reassuring. Other people, however, referred to Pompey who had conducted a civil war at seventeen and to Augustus who had done the same at the age of nineteen. Tacitus' sarcasm is obvious here. Under the guise of sermones he explores the weaknesses of the new dispensation: num proelia quoque et obpugnationes urbium et cetera belli per magistros administrari possent, anquirebant (13. 6. 2). By comparing Nero (septemdecim annos egressus) to Pompey (octavo decimo anno aetatis) and Augustus (nono decimo) Tacitus creates false expectations of Nero being able to hold his own in a comparison with Pompey and Augustus.
The theme of Nero's immaturity returns to unexpected prominence in 62 when Seneca is attacked by the emperor's new advisers. The main point that they put forward is that Nero did not need overseeing anymore: certe finitam Neronis pueritiam et robur iuventae adesse: exuerit magistrum, satis amplis doctoribus instructus maioribus suis (14. 52. 4). The issue of guidance resurfaces in the course of a dialogue between the emperor and his adviser when Seneca announced his desire that he wanted to retire.[25]

The episode is highly peculiar, not for its placement in the narrative, but for the rather placid and puzzling nature of the discussion. One may doubt whether such a dialogue really took place; it is noted for its highly rhetorical character, based upon literary models of discussions between a tyrant and his adviser. The dialogue receives a cynical twist that is worth drawing attention to. Nero's remark about youth's slippery path emphasises that he still needs the philosopher's guidance, even in manhood. After eight years of rule Nero still considers himself as having only just started: et nos prima imperii spatia ingredimur (14. 56. 1). Tacitus' readership is made acutely aware of the fact that time has stopped in 54 when such a humble remark would have been appropriate. Seneca, on the other hand, asserts that the emperor has been in power long enough to know the ropes: superest tibi robur et tot per annus visum summi fastigii regimen (14. 54. 3). Both speakers entertain unrealistic ideas about the rate of progress achieved between 54 and 62, an appropriate signpost of the failure of Seneca's teaching and an indication of the bankruptcy of the ideological programme launched at the beginning of the reign.

Some factors ostensibly have not changed in 62. Nero's lack of maturity and his dependence on others remain problematic, but there is a marked change in the relationship between Nero and his courtiers, a change which Tacitus renders all the more significant by casting it in a number of speeches. After the dialogue between Nero and Seneca we get Tigellinus' persuasive speech encouraging the emperor to undertake action against Rubellius Plautus and Faustus Cornelius Sulla (14. 57. 2-4) and an emotional speech by Poppaea Sabina on the topic of her rival Octavia (14. 61. 2-4).

It is to be noted that Seneca's dialogue with Nero is the only instance that we witness him addressing the emperor; in the early part of the reign his prominence has been obscured and his method of indirect prompting has never led to any personal discussion with Nero (not even when he and Burrus are discussing the position of Agrippina after the first murder attempt). The two new advisers, however, are immediately allowed to have the emperor's ear, and both encourage Nero to commit crimes. This cinematic strategy creates the impression that the two new advisers wielded greater influence than either Seneca or Burrus.

Tigellinus' denouncing of Rubellius Plautus and Faustus Cornelius Sulla is illustrative of the degree to which the rule of the emperor is developing into a fantasy world of appearances and illusions. Both senators had already been banished, Plautus to Asia and Sulla to Gallia Narbonensis, but distance only enhanced Nero's uncertainty of their aims. Most important of all, both of them were descended from Augustus and their banishment had brought them closer to the imperial armies of Germany and Syria. Subsequently Tigellinus expounded on the strategies they employed to camouflage their aims. Sulla's poverty indicated that he had nothing to lose, and his laziness was only pretence.

Plautus, on the other hand, was rich and did not pretend to like his retirement from active politics. He paraded his admiration of the ancient Romans, which, in the case of a Stoic, was tantamount to sedition and intrigue. This is a complicated concoction of deception and half-truths, which is given the substance of truth by twisting diametrically opposite character traits and motifs to point in the same direction. Sulla is poor which makes him all the more daring, whereas Plautus has the necessary funds to bribe army-commanders. Furthermore, Sulla only pretends to be lazy, while he is planning a daring exploit. Plautus is honest in his admiration for the ancient Republican heroes, which, being a Stoic, confirms his anti-Neronian attitude. Sulla is thought to cover up his true aims, while Plautus does not pretend. Tigellinus here displays a masterly command of contradictory reasoning, fuelling Nero's fears and instantly making his mark on the emperor's mind-set.


An autocrat needed collaborators to fulfil his plans. Tacitus had a natural interest in the people who assisted Nero in governing and it is clear from his presentation that he was curious as to how Seneca and Burrus had attempted to control Nero, but proved powerless against his most passionate desires. He was likewise intrigued (and disgusted) by the power wielded by Tigellinus, based on acute observation of Nero's fears and desires. The ascendancy of Tigellinus sees a different constellation of power at the imperial court.

Nero is now in harmony with his courtiers, who share his passions and tastes. Tacitus' emphasis on the year 62 as the turning-point of Nero's reign was a personal choice of the historian designed to weave a series of sub-plots together: Nero's youth and his reliance on others, the failure of Seneca's approach of indirect prompting and the emergence of new rules for showing loyalty to the emperor. It was this year which best suited the historian's purpose of contrasting the old and the new regime.

The emperor's reign ended with the eruption of a civil war and Tacitus was no doubt of the opinion that Nero with all his weaknesses contributed to the chaos that followed his death. Some suggestion of a climactic finale might be guessed from the fact that the Neronian books contain a higher number of religious portents than is recorded for any other reign.[26] The horror of the matricide is presaged in the fire devastating Cologne, the settlement named after Agrippina, and in the dying of the shoots of the fig-tree 'Ruminalis'.[27]

The religious portents prior to the great fire of 64 are numerous - the collapse of the amphitheatre at Naples; Tigellinus' mass-orgy; Nero's exotic wedding-ceremony to Pythagoras.[28] Vatinius, the hunch-backed cobbler who rose to a position of pre-eminence at Nero's court through spying and informing, is himself labelled a portent (15. 34. 2). The dramatic events of the year 62, carrying the suggestion that Nero changed from good to bad advisers, set the scene for a final descent into lies, illusion and destruction of apocalyptic proportions.

[1] An earlier version was read at the 1997 Colloquium ``The Era of Nero'' organized at the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, by the National Committee for Greek and Latin Studies. I would like to acknowledge my gratitude to the organizers for their hospitality. Members of the audience made helpful comments for which I am grateful. The footnotes have been kept to a minimum; all references to Tacitus are to the Annales, unless noted otherwise.
[2] Tony Woodman, 'Nero's Alien Capital: Tacitus as paradoxographer (Annals 15. 36-7), in Tony Woodman/Jonathan Powell (eds.), Author and Audience in Latin Literature (Cambridge 1992), 173-88; idem, 'Amateur Dramatics at the Court of Nero: Annals 15. 48-74', in T. J. Luce/A. J. Woodman (eds.), Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition (Princeton 1993), 104-29.
[3] J. Elsner/J. Masters (eds.), Reflections of Nero (London 1994).
[4] A rather disappointing attempt is Joan-Pau Rubiés, 'Nero in Tacitus and Nero in Tacitism: the historian's craft', in Elsner/Masters (above note 3), 29-48.
[5] The most balanced discussions can be found in Miriam Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (Oxford 1976), 423-7 (hereafter Griffin, Seneca) and Miriam Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (London 1984), 83-100 (hereafter Griffin, Nero).
[6] For an up-to-date discussion of the arguments in this somewhat stale area of debate see Barbara Levick, 'Nero's Quinquennium', in C. Deroux (ed.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, vol. 3 (Brussels 1983), 211-25.
[7] M. K. Thornton, 'The Enigma of Nero's Quinquennium. Reputation of Emperor Nero', Historia 22 (1973), 570-82, is the only scholar who has followed the directions of Aurelius Victor and the Epitome quite literally and suggested that the latter period of Nero's reign is meant. The reign of terror during the aftermath of the Pisonian conspiracy precludes such a notion.
[8] It is unclear whether this scenario was dictated to him by his sources. Griffin, Seneca, 73, argues against invention.
[9] The pivotal phrase in 14. 51. 1 - 'sed gravescentibus in dies publicis malis' - finds no support in the immediately preceding chapters, but refers to the death of Burrus and the breaking of Seneca's potentia, cf. R. H. Martin, 'Structure and Interpretation in the 'Annals' of Tacitus', ANRW 33. 2 (Berlin/New York 1990), 1564. In the same volume Michael M. Sage (p. 995) and Mark Morford (p. 1604) call attention to the obituary of Memmius Regulus for 61, the last official obituary in the Neronian books (14. 47). Regulus is referred to by Nero as the subsidium of the state and his death signalled the end of an era.
[10] Cf. Griffin, Seneca, 107-8, who gives a balanced account of freedmen's influence under Nero.
[11] Polycleitus was used in 61 to solve a conflict between the governor of Britain and the imperial procurator (14. 39), cf. Griffin, Nero, 87, who interprets it as a sign of strain between senate and emperor. Helius was left in charge of Rome while Nero was touring Greece.
[12] Altogether Tacitus has made it much easier to follow Seneca's programme of guidance, whereas Burrus remains in the background. On Tacitus' portrayal of Burrus see D. Gillis, 'The Portrait of Afranius Burrus in Tacitus' Annales', PP 18 (1963), 5-22.
[13] For an interesting reading of this incident see Shadi Bartsch, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak From Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge Mass. 1994), 16-20.
[14] Barry Baldwin, 'Ruler and Ruled at Rome, AD 14-192', Ancient Society 3 (1972), 149-65, esp. 155-6, suggests a historical core in which it is imagined that Nero visited the downtown pubs to find out what people really thought of their emperor. This reading fails to convince because it detaches one element from the cluster of events and deliberately ignores the others. Justin Goddard, 'The Tyrant at Table', in Elsner/Masters (above note 3), 67-83, argues that stories about kings dressing up as lowly characters are always related of popular rulers. Yet this explanation ignores the fact that behaviour such as displayed by Nero is always related of 'bad' emperors: Caligula: Suet. Calig. 11; Suet. Otho 2; Verus: HA 4. 6; Commodus: HA 3. 7. To assume distortions of good intentions in each case is surely pointless.
[15] The indulgence given to youth clearly was a rhetorical topos, cf. S. Braund, Beyond Anger: a study of Juvenal's third book of satires (Cambridge 1988), 117 with note 116.
[16] Since slaves could not be distinguished from freeborn Romans in the way they dressed, Tacitus' remark that Nero dressed up as a slave is mainly a form of moral condemnation. Suetonius does not mention this element; Cassius Dio (62. 8. 1) gives 'as a private citizen'.
[17]Griffin, Nero, 111.
[18] I believe that such a strategy may also lie behind Nero's decision to withdraw the soldiers from the amphitheatre which resulted in riots between the factions supporting the pantomimes. In Tacitus' account the two areas of unrest are paired: 13. 24; 13. 25. 3-4.
[19] The chronological problems offered by Tacitus' account for this period have been pointed out by R. S. Rogers, 'Five over-crowded months? AD 62', in: Ch. Henderson Jr. (ed.), Classical, mediaeval and Renaissance studies in honor of B. L. Ullman, vol. I (Rome 1964), 218-222.
[20] Cf. Barry Baldwin, 'Seneca's Potentia', CP 65 (1970), 187-8 and idem, 'Seneca and Petronius', AClass 24 (1981), 133-41, esp. 134.
[21] T. K. Roper, 'Nero, Seneca and Tigellinus', Historia 28 (1979), 346-57 argues that Tacitus glosses over the connections between Seneca and Tigellinus. Her suggestion that Tigellinus' rise may have been influenced by Seneca's patronage is attractive, but substantial evidence is lacking.
[22] R. S. Rogers, 'The Tacitean Account of a Neronian Trial', in Studies Presented to D. M. Robinson II (St. Louis, 1953), 711-8; Barry Baldwin, 'Executions, Trials, and Punishment in the Reign of Nero', PP 22 (1967), 425-39, esp. 425; 439; Keith Bradley, '``Tum primum revocata ea lex''', AJP 94 (1973), 172-81.
[23] As argued by Bradley (above note 22), 175; 179.
[24] It is interesting to note that from 62 onwards some of the key-players in politics are accused of threatening to eclipse Nero as emperor through their popularity (Seneca; Thrasea Paetus; Calpurnius Piso). Others are exposed as posing as emperor through the management of their household (Torquatus).
[25] The episode has been treated in some detail in recent discussions. Miriam Griffin, Seneca, 442-3 discusses the echoes of Seneca's own work in the speech, but glosses over the temporal aspect. See further S. J. Bastomsky, 'Tacitus, Annals 14,53,2. The pathos of the Tacitean Seneca's request to Nero', Latomus 31 (1972), 174-8; Anna Lydia Motto/John R. Clark, 'Seneca Gives Thanks to Nero', SIFC 87 (1994), 110-7.
[26] Cf. J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford 1979), 155-67.
[27] For the importance of these portents as a signal of Nero's descent into depravity, cf. H. Y. McCulloch, 'Literary augury at the end of Annales XIII', Phoenix 34 (1980), 237-42.
[28] Cf. W. Allen Jr., 'Nero's eccentricities before the fire (Tac. Ann. 15, 37)', Numen 9 (1962), 99-109.
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