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Elegantia vitae: Generic and Moral Selectivity in Tacitus’ Annals

Lydia Spielberg

          In his obituary of the Neronian historian Servilius Nonianus , Tacitus praises the man for his achievements in oratory and historiography, but also for his elegantia vitae --  his “well-curated life,” as  we might say. This apparent appreciation of frivolous hedonism, so out of keeping with Tacitus's severe historiographical persona, but granted to Servilius here and to the playwright Pomponius Secundus in a similarly laudatory passage at 6.8 (elegantia morum), has seemed to demand explication: Syme suggested a Tacitus who has “gained in tolerance as he went on, and even in humour” (Syme 1964), and, more recently, Habinek takes this as an example of new, private avenues for elite self-definition, finding the origin of the phrase in Nepos’s life of Atticus, whose elegantia vitae cemented his friendship with Augustus (Habinek 2000; Vita Att. 19.2.4).  Or does this elegantia consist in what the TLL glosses as innocentia or sanctitas (5.2.337.18-21) and reserves for a few instances in Cicero’s works (as in Sailor 2008; cf. Seneca Ad Marciam 6.8.3)?  In light of the fact that Tacitus focuses his praise on Pomponius’s and Servilius’s literary accomplishments and their use of ingenium, however, I contend that we also need to consider their elegantia through the word’s stylistic and literary-critical valences (cf. Krostenko 2001).

            In this paper I argue that Tacitus’s attribution of elegantia draws on the word’s core meaning of “selectivity” in all three of these registers – the ethical, the social, and the stylistic -- to praise individuals who achieve literary renown and glory that do not depend upon delation, the most common but most detestable route to prominence through talent. Tacitus’ criterion of elegantia can thus be placed into a broader discourse of contemporary crticism that conflates moral and aesthetic planes, but he innovates in extending this critique to encompass generic selection as well.  Servilius and Pomponius are praised through synkrises with equally talented men, Domitius Afer and Pulius Vitellius respectively, who used their literary skill to attack and accuse, and through the language of stylistic criticism, Tacitus condemns the ethical and literary choices of these delator-counterparts.

            I then argue that Tacitus also activates this dynamic of aesthetic morality in the death of Petronius, the Arbiter elegantiae himself (16.19-20).   Petronius’s elegantia and eruditus luxus are initially given a purely aesthetic and even hedonistic cast as Tacitus focalizes them through Nero’s court, but the end of the episode, in which Petronius indicts Nero’s sexual perversions and then breaks his signet to save others from accusation, recalls the same choices about how to use one’s literary talent for good rather than ill. As in the cases of the playwright Pomponius and the historian Servilius, the moral is driven home by contrast: Petronius is the pendent to Annaeus Mela, whose death in 16.17 is anything but elegant, and whose literary family connections (he was the father of Lucan) make him a particularly suggestive comparandus. It has been noted that Petronius has affinities here with the historian in his final act of recording imperial crimes for posterity (Haynes 2010), and, if this Petronius is indeed the author of the Satyrica, Tacitus may be expressing subtle approval of yet another alternative route to literary glory.

            Finally, I suggest that these models of elegantia provide a solution to the dilemma proposed in the Dialogus. There, Maternus rejects the violent field of contemporary oratory for poetry, but cannot counter the accusation that he is abandoning the obligations that his oratorical talent should impose.  These men, however, with public careers and positions in the courts of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero respectively, and so offer an ideal model for senatorial glory than Maternus, and bear some similarity to Tacitus’ own career as a survivor of the principate who was an orator, a consul and pro-consul, and finally, a historian.  Petronius’s fate, however, shows how fragile the balance of elegantia is.

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Judgment and Obligation in Roman Intellectual History

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