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Poisoning Lucretia: An Allusion to Livy at Tac. Ann. 6.40.1

Nicholas A Rudman

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This paper investigates Tacitus’ views regarding the principate through a close reading of his account of Vibulenus Agrippa’s suicide (Ann. 6.40.1). The episode, in which the accused eques drinks poison in the curia and the emperor’s lictors subsequently hang his lifeless body, has received little scholarly attention. A close reading, however, reveals that this scene alludes to one of the most famous episodes in Livy’s history: the suicide of Lucretia (Liv. 1.58). Using the models of intertextual study proposed by Hinds 1998, Fowler 2000, and O’Gorman 2009, I argue that this previously undiscussed (cf. Martin 2001 and Woodman 2017) intertext suggests an author strongly opposed to the principate, supporting the concept of the republican “Red Tacitus” articulated by Toffanin 1921 and more recently defended by Strunk 2017.

Tacitus states that after Vibulenus drank the poison, he was seized by the lictors while prolapsusque ac moribundus (Ann. 6.40.1). The verbal parallel with Livy’s account of Lucretia’s suicide, in which the matron prolapsaque in vulnus moribunda cecidit (1.58.12), seems clear. Furthermore, the words prolaps- and moribund- appear in close proximity nowhere else in the Packard Humanities Institute database, and Tacitus’ ancient audience would have been able to recognize references to Livy (Pomeroy 2011). Strunk 2014 argues that Tacitus portrayed Augustus’ marriage to Livia (Ann. 1.10.5) as a subversion of the Lucretia narrative in order to show senatorial acquiescence to the principate, demonstrating that there is precedent for the intertext at Ann. 6.40.1 sending a political message.

I contend that this intertext casts the principate as an oppressive form of monarchy. Numerous scholars (e.g. Joplin 1990, Fox 1996, Calhoon 1997) have argued that Livy’s Lucretia narrative serves as a metaphor for the need to abolish autocracy, as the egregious use of royal power expressed through the rape spurs an elite class suffering under a monarch (1.49.6-7) to take action. Vibulenus’ suicide occurs under similar circumstances, as Tiberius continues to diminish a helpless senate and makes an arbitrary and pointless display of power by hanging an already dead man (iam exanimis: Ann. 6.40.1). Indeed, the abuse inflicted on Vibulenus is even more outrageous than what Lucretia suffered. Death freed Lucretia from the possibility of future violation, whereas Vibulenus suffers further humiliation upon dying.

Tacitus’ account thus suggests that Rome’s elite should have recognized these imperial abuses and overthrown the emperor. They do not, however, perhaps because both Vibulenus and the senate are inferior versions of their Livian parallels. Vibulenus kills himself with poison, a less resolute method than Lucretia’s sword (van Hooff 1990), while Livy’s elite react with ira (Liv. 1.59.2), compared to the terror that defines the response of Tacitus’ senate (Ann. 6.40.1). Tacitus shows that life under the principate has corrupted these men, and they cannot emulate the deeds of their ancestors and free themselves from tyranny. This is not the view one would expect from a monarchist historian (cf. e.g. Syme 1958, Percival 1980), but rather befits a Red Tacitus.

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Roman Historiography

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