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Remembering to Mourn in Tacitus' Annals: Germanicus' Death and the Shape of Grief

Aaron M. Seider

College of the Holy Cross

In Tacitus’ Annals, Germanicus’ death and the Romans’ reactions cast his loss as an event to be interpreted based on past memories as well as a template for future commemorations. The idea of prospective memory, described by Schacter as “remembering to do things in the future” (51), shows how Tacitus’ narrative emphasizes the struggle to remember not just what to do, but how to do it. My paper argues that in Annals 2.41, 3.5, and 3.6 ordinary Romans and the emperor look to earlier examples to remember how to react to Germanicus’ death, a characterization that creates a template for prospective memory both within Tacitus’ text and for his history’s readers. Within the Annals, the Romans select the commemorations of Augustus in 1.9-10 as a paradigm for their imminent actions, and the tensions of this earlier imperial commemoration manifest themselves as a series of shifting and conflicted memorials in Books 2 and 3. On a second level, my paper concludes that the responses to Germanicus’ death serve as a literary monument for Tacitus’ readers, with the potential to shape how they figure out how to commemorate loss in the future.

In the events surrounding Germanicus’ death, characters treat the past as a guide for remembering proper behavior. Even as Germanicus triumphs at Rome, hidden alarm grows as the Romans, “reflecting on” (reputantibus, 2.41.3) earlier deaths of similar elites, surmise that their own love affairs with such leaders are brief and ill-starred (Goodyear 1981). Internal contemplation gives way to explicit judgement after Germanicus’ passing (Gingras, Pelling, Williams). As his remains are brought through Rome, some compare Tiberius’ restraint with Augustus’ attention toward the corpse of Germanicus’ father and wonder “Where are those customs of our ancestors?” (ubi illa veterum instituta, 3.5.2). Learning of such sentiments, Tiberius responds with recent instances that prescribe restraint in mourning. When he remarks that “there is no need for more ancient examples (nil opus est vetustioribus exemplis, 3.6.3), the emperor demonstrates his recognition of the advantages offered by the rhetoric of prospective memory.

In Tacitus’ rendition, the Romans explicitly use memory to figure out how to proceed in the near future in 2.41, 3.5, and 3.6, and this treatment implies that the Annals’ characters may likewise turn to memory in less marked ways. Indeed, their reactions to Germanicus’ death cast the memorials of Augustus as a blueprint for their own imminent actions. In Tacitus’ treatment of Augustus’ death, some extol the emperor’s life and justify his actions (1.9.3-5), while others portray his deeds as self-interested and his justifications as disingenuous (1.10.1-7) (Shotter; Goodyear 1972). Germanicus’ death amplifies this bifurcation. One person speaks of those who mask great joy with ostentatious mourning (2.77.3), while Tacitus notes how the silence and grief at Rome “were not at all fabricated for display” (nihil compositum in ostentationem, 2.82.3). Meanwhile, the crowd wonders whether they should greet Germanicus’ ashes “with silence or some call” (silentione an voce aliqua, 3.1.3); and Piso imagines that Drusus, Germanicus’ adopted brother, might be “not at all pitiless but rather favorable with his rival removed” (haud … trucem quam remoto aemulo aequiorem, 3.8.1). These reactions’ uncertainty and conflict imply that, in the Annals, the Romans turned to the commemorations of Augustus as a guide in figuring out how to proceed with mourning Germanicus.

In these sections of the Annals, Tacitus’ characters craft their future behavior based on memories, a paradigm that sets up his literary text as a mnemonic guide for its readers. These readers likewise inhabit the new, turbulent world of imperial Rome, and Tacitus’ narrative of the reactions to Germanicus’ death may stand as a template for their future behavior. As such, this portrait of mourning and prospective memory offers a typically Tacitean paradox: the natural response to a death in Rome has now become something that is remembered and constructed rather than instinctual and unmediated.

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Prospective Memory in Ancient Rome: Constructing the Future Through Text and Material Culture

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