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A New Interpretation of Tacitus Historiae 2.70: Lucan's Caesar and Tacitus' Vitellius

Giulio Celotto

At Tac. Hist. 2.70 the emperor Vitellius visits the battlefield of Bedriacum after the decisive clash against Otho. He enjoys the sight of the bodies so much that he cannot turn his eyes away from that spectacle. Among the numerous scholars who have offered various interpretations of this chapter (Morgan 1992; Keitel 1996; Haynes 2003), particularly noteworthy are Manolaraki (2005) and Joseph (2012), who suggest reading this passage in the light of Caesar’s visit to the battlefield of Pharsalus (Luc. B.C. 7.787-95). Manolaraki sees the Tacitean Vitellius as a positive counterpart of the impious Lucanian Caesar, whereas Joseph considers him as savage and sacrilegious as Caesar. The purpose of this paper is to propose a more nuanced reading: Vitellius and Caesar are neither antithetical nor identical. Vitellius has a Caesarian (i.e. cruel, impious) nature, as the reference to the Lucanian model proves; nevertheless he tries to conceal it, in order not to be seen as a savage tyrant, but rather as a virtuous ruler. His pretense is an example of Tacitean ‘make-believe’ (Haynes 2003), wherein emperors fashion themselves (fingere) in a certain way so that the people might believe (credere) the image they craft. I will support this thesis with an in-depth analysis of other significant passages of the Historiae (2.62 and 3.58: Vitellius’ reluctant acceptance of the title of ‘Caesar’; 2.89: Vitellius’ entrance in Rome) that demonstrates Tacitus’ Vitellian failed engagement with Caesarian identity.

            Finally, I will show that the whole account of the civil war between Otho and Vitellius is patterned on Lucan’s account of the conflict between Pompey and Caesar: the settings, the characters involved, some episodes (the appearance of prodigies before the final clash, the construction of a bridge, etc.), and above all the general interpretation of these wars offered by the two authors are analogous. Tacitus, in fact, shares with Lucan the idea that both the sides implicated in the conflict are potentially harmful for Rome, and that therefore its outcome does not matter at all: whoever wins will prove himself to be the worst. Tacitus’ Lucanian portrayal of the war between Otho and Vitellius is driven by his jaundiced view regarding most of the aspirants to empire in 69 and his preference for Vespasian, during whose reign he embarked upon his career.

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(Inter)generic Receptions in and of Early Imperial Epic

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