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The Failure of Fides in the Octavia

Lauren Ginsberg

The Octavia, one of the earliest surviving Flavian texts (Smith [2003], Boyle [2008]), actively participates the Flavian era’s renegotiation of the memory of Nero and the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In particular, I suggest, the play rewrites the Age of Nero as a place of fundamentally misdirected and at times perverted fides, especially in its portrayal of the final generations of Julio-Claudian women. I argue that the Octavia dramatizes a world in which the bedroom of the empress becomes a stage for private, elegiac perfidia and at the same time locus for public stasis, an uncomfortable fusion of fides and passion that would bring about the dynasty’s fall. In this way the play makes the final years of the Julio-Claudian era – with its various misapplications of Fides Publica – into a foil for the new dynasty which reimagined itself as the true guardian of Rome’s values.

            I begin by exploring how fides defines the failed relationships of emperor and empress. Messalina’s and Agrippina’s perfidia towards Claudius becomes a leitmotif of the play (Oct. 160ff, 257ff, 536) symbolic of the type of union Nero eschews. Nero seeks a marriage based on the passionate fides of elegy (536-71), a mutual desire that he believes ensures fidelity and offspring. Seneca attempts to persuade Nero that Octavia’s fides both smolders with amor (teneris in annis haud satis clara est fides/ pudore victus cum tegit flammas amor, 538-9) and will outlast the temporary gifts of youth (547-50). But Nero asserts that her mother’s lack of fides to Claudius renders both her lineage problematic and also, by implication, her marital fides to him treasonously suspect (536). Like perfidious mother, like daughter. Though Nero continuously uses the language of private, erotic amor in his characterization of Poppaea’s fidelity and Octavia’s unsuitability, he makes clear that his wider concerns are indeed also political. The elegiac fides he seeks from his wife will come with political benefits: the domestic concordia (concordi fide, 791) that leads to a state at peace and a secured succession (591ff). To achieve these goals, a passionately faithful woman is required.

            Nero’s concerns about the connection between amatory and political fides are hardly the paranoid delusions of a stock tyrant. The second part of this paper explores how, on the contrary, the play demonstrates that Julio-Claudian women can easily become loci of strife due to the passionate, almost elegiac fides that they inspire in the populus, a fides that can drive Rome to act against its emperor. For example, Agrippina escapes drowning due to the fides of the people, a fides which the Roman citizens still seem to maintain steadfastly after her death (mansit tacitis in pectoribus/ spreta tristi iam morte fides, 350-1). Moreover, the central action of the play is the popular riot which Nero’s divorce of Octavia engenders – strife inspired by the fides of the people not to the imperial system or to Nero’s house, but to Octavia herself. Likewise the play’s second chorus of citizens celebrates the fides that Poppaea shows Nero (791), even as it worries about the strife that those loyal to Octavia will kindle at Rome (906ff).

            From the dynasty’s prominent minting of anti-Neronian coinage heralding the return of fides publica (RIC 21 Vespasian 300, 301, 402, 444; Ramage [1983]) to Nero’s ironic final last words (haec est fides, Suet. 49), possibly the product of the Flavian historiographical imagination, Flavian Rome capitalized on the concept of fides as a core value that differentiated it from the chaos that came before. The prominence of imperial women in Julio-Claudian imagery was especially criticized by new generation of historians who rewrote the history of Rome’s first ruling family as a tragedy played out by scheming, manipulative femmes fatales. The Octavia is a key witness to how the Flavian era rewrote Nero’s Rome as a staging ground for the perfidy of the first imperial family and the misdirected fides it engendered. 

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Fides in Flavian Poetry

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