TACITUS, ANNALS 4.70: AN UNAPPRECIATED PUN(*).
Chapter 70 resumes the narrative of A.D. 28 and describes the events which occurred at the beginning of the year in greater detail. On 1 January a letter from Tiberius was read out containing (a distortion, because couched in a letter, of) the conventional prayers associated with the new year, the uota pro salute rei publicae: traditionally, the new consuls `entering office on 1 January offered a sacrifice to Iuppiter on the Capitol in fulfilment of the vow of the past year and renewed the vow for the current year'.(1) These formalities completed, however, the emperor's letter abruptly changed tack, attacking Sabinus for treachery and demanding retribution in no uncertain terms. The senate acquiesced, and as Sabinus was dragged off to execution Tacitus attributes a final remark to him. Sabinus cried, as loudly as he could with a hood on his head and a noose round his neck, sic inchoari annum, has Seiano uictimas cadere, `that this was how the new year was being marked, these the victims being sacrificed to Sejanus'. The remainder of ch. 70 continues the emphasis on calendrical date. Onlookers feared for their own safety in circumstances when violence intruded even into the religious ceremonies of the new year; and the new magistrates' reopening of the prison seemed a ghastly parody of the reinauguration of the temples and altars traditionally undertaken on the Kalends of January. Chapter 71 begins in similar vein, with Tacitus' famous (self-subverting) statement of commitment to annalistic convention: ni mihi destinatum foret suum quaeque in annum referre ..., `Had I not determined to assign each event to its proper year...'.
Martin and Woodman interpret has Seiano uictimas cadere as implying an equation of Sejanus with the deity to whom bulls were sacrificed by the consuls on 1 January, Jupiter Optimus Maximus: `Sabinus' cry indicates that the real power lay with the "divine" Sejanus'.(2) But although the remark unquestionably serves to equate Sejanus with a deity, it is not Jupiter who should be foremost in the readers' minds. Taylor and Holland have attempted to explain the original location of the Capitoline Fasti, the chronological list of consuls, in the lateral openings of the Arch of Augustus by reference to `the interpretation of the god Janus'--the numen of entrances, arches, and of beginnings in general--`as the god in charge of the consular records--indeed as a god of time'.(3) That Janus was closely associated with the new consuls, and the record of the consuls, is clear from Martial 8.8.3-4, a passage which states that Janus was the first to be `petitioned by the pious incense' which accompanied prayer, and first also to be `saluted by vows' and worshipped by consuls and lesser magistrates (te primum pia tura rogent, te uota salutent, purpura te felix, te colat omnis honos), and Martial 8.66.9-12, which sees in Janus the source of the glory gained by Pompey the Great and M. Agrippa in their triple consulships. As Taylor and Holland point out (p. 138), a connection between Janus and the consuls was easily made. `The consuls celebrated the formal ceremony of entry upon office on Janus' day, the Kalends, of Janus' month,(4) and in their sacrifice, as in most state sacrifices, Janus received the first offering.' That Janus was addressed first in such ceremonies, `coming even before Jupiter',(5) is proved by (amongst other evidence) Martial's apostrophe of the god at 10.28.2, publica quem primum uota precesque uocant, `you whom public vows and prayers invoke first'. The association with the new consuls cannot have been of very great antiquity but was certainly recognized in the Augustan period and must presumably date from the period post-153 B.C., when the opening of the consular year was transferred from 15 March to 1 January.(6)
The remark which Tacitus attributes to Sabinus as he is dragged away is thus a bitter pun. It was a token of the smooth and proper running of the Roman state that sacrificial victims fell in honour of Ianus on 1 January, but in the corrupt circumstances of A.D. 28 the sacrifice, of Sabinus, is to Se-ianus.
Tacitus' Annals are of course preoccupied with the structuring of time, and particularly in the first six books, which (superficially) conform to annalistic convention. Thus Book 4 begins with an exquisitely subtle and telling comment on the status of the consulate in imperial Rome. The book opens with a traditional dating formula for A.D. 23, C. Asinio C. Antistio consulibus. But Tacitus' choice of the ablative absolute construction serves to isolate the consuls from the main action of the sentence and also to subordinate these republican magistrates to Tiberius' quite untraditional perennial power: C. Asinio C. Antistio consulibus nonus Tiberio annus erat compositae rei publicae ..., cum repente ..., `In the consulship of Gaius Asinius and Gaius Antistius Tiberius' ninth year was one of political stability ..., when suddenly...' (1.1).(7) In effect two methods of dating are juxtaposed, the traditional consular formula of republican government and annalistic historiography, and an untraditional `imperial' system which, in contrast to the naming of consuls, reflects the actual nature of imperial Rome. As in the reality of Tiberian Rome, so in Tacitus' historical record republican forms persist but are an irrelevance and a sham. Janus, god of new consuls, god of the regular republican annus on which annalistic historiography was predicated, god of Roman time itself, is no more. Better, perhaps, Janus is there but grotesquely distorted by the imperial system: it is not Janus who oversees the consulate but Sejanus (cf. 68.2),(8) appropriate patron deity(9) of the malign and corrupt regime which Tacitus is chronicling, one that looks like the traditional system but is in fact its negation. Sabinus' pun thus perfectly exemplifies Tacitus' annalistic trope: `The annalistic form was traditionally associated with the Republican past, and Tacitus wanted to evoke that past, if only to deny its application to the present'.(10)
(*) I am grateful to CQ's editors and referee for their comments on this note.
(1) S. Weinstock, Divus Julius (Oxford, 1971), p. 217.
(2) R. H. Martin and A. J. Woodman, Tacitus, Annals Book IV (Cambridge, 1989), ad loc.
(3) L. R. Taylor and L. A. Holland, `Janus and the Fasti', CPh 47 (1952), 137-42, at 137.
(4) Cf. Lucan 5.5-6.
(5) H. H. Scullard, Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (London, 1981), p. 61.
(6) Taylor and Holland (n. 3), 139-40.
(7) Martin and Woodman (n. 2), ad loc.; J. Ginsburg, Tradition and Theme in the Annals of Tacitus (Salem, 1981), p. 11.
(8) With the privative se `Sejanus' is almost literally `lacking in Janus'.
(9) For Sejanus' pseudo-divine status cf. Martin and Woodman (n. 2), at 4.2.3, 74.2, and 74.4. Cf. 4.1.1, initium et causa penes Aelium Seianum, `the beginning and cause were Aelius Sejanus' responsibility'.
(10) Ginsburg (n. 7), p. 100. In retrospect Tacitus' comment that there was no access to the consulate except through Sejanus, ad quem non nisi per Seianum aditus, may seem to gain special point. Janus was above all the deity of entrances.
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|Publication:||The Classical Quarterly|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1998|
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