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Morbid Joy: Laetus in Tacitus

Emma N Warhover

UNC Chapel Hill

In Tacitus’ historical works, laetus and its cognates are frequently applied to situations in which one figure’s death or misfortune inspires happiness in another. Although this use of laetus is neither universal in nor unique to Tacitus, it is sufficiently common to be notable. I argue that Tacitus typically uses laetus to describe incidents in which some characters rejoice over the deaths of others, and that this sinister connotation of laetus colors much of the emotional narrative that surrounds them: the frequent use of laetus to describe happiness at death and happiness based on deception encourages suspicion of other expressions of happiness and optimism, even in less obviously suspicious circumstances.

This sinister use of laetus appears early in both the Histories and the Annals. Tacitus begins the main narrative of the Histories by describing Nero’s death as initially “happy” before it inspired more complex reactions (finis Neronis ut laetus primo gaudentium impetu fuerat, 1.4.2). This is the second use of laetus in Histories (the first, at 1.3.2, is general and explicitly opposed to tristia), and it sets a tone for further, similar uses. First, it involves rejoicing over a misfortune, specifically a death. Rejoicing over Nero’s death is perhaps a minor fault according to Tacitus’ moral framework, but joy related to misfortune sets a precedent. Second, laetitia here indicates a momentary hope speedily revealed to be false. This “disaster-prone” sense of laetus has been documented in the Aeneid by Lyne (1989, 183-4), but it has not to my knowledge been recognized as present in Tacitus.

The first two instances of laetus in the Annals are if anything even more clearly focused on rejoicing in death and on the deceptive qualities of joy. First, Livia spreads false good news around the time of Augustus’ death (1.5.6), which cements the connection between happiness and false anticipation. The next use of laetus describes the public reaction to Augustus’ death: the consuls, senators, and equites who hurried to curry favor with Tiberius were careful to appear “neither happy at the death of the emperor nor very sad at the inception [of another emperor]” (ne laeti excessu principis neu tristiores primordio, 1.7.2). Here, measured joy and sadness are both deceptive, and Tacitus appears to find it necessary to specify that people should at least not appear happy at the deaths of emperors while implying that joy at death is inevitable enough to need concealment.

Although none of these connotations of laetus predominate among the other meanings of the word that appear in Tacitus (he also uses laetus to refer to less complicated expressions of joy, and in more specialized meanings such as omens and fertility), these early uses of laetus do set a distinctive tone on the significance of the word in the Histories and Annals. Later appearances of laetus follow this precedent, making happiness a frequent marker of foolishness and narrative irony in Tacitus’ narrative.

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Roman Historiography

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