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Tacitus’ Historiographical Technique: Moderatio in the Tiberian Narrative and Documentary Sources from the Tiberian Principate

Christopher R Ell

Brown University

Working in the tradition of Syme’s (1958: 700-703) and Miller’s (1968) studies of word usage in Tacitean speeches and their theory that the speeches of Tiberius in the Annales exhibit a distinct diction conditioned by genuine Tiberian speeches, I argue that there is a narrowing of the semantic range of moderatio (and the cognate verb moderor) in Tacitus’ portrayal of Tiberius (as compared to the wider Tacitean oeuvre) that echoes the genuine Tiberian idiom of moderatio as an imperial virtue. Though Wharton (1997) has strongly critiqued Syme and Miller—based on statistical grounds and on the absence of a reference set of genuine Tiberian speeches to verify their conclusions—my argument avoids the pitfalls that he highlights. As a narrow case-study of a single virtue, it does not rely on statistical or numerical arguments; it instead demonstrates that, though the semantic range of the virtue is broad in the Tacitean corpus as a whole, the semantic range is narrower when used of Tiberius (with only a subset of the valences attested in Tacitus being used of Tiberius). I further use the documentary record of the Tiberian principate—in which moderatio is prominent—as a reference set to verify my conclusions, with particular attention to a double series of dupondii that advertise moderatio and clementia (RIC I2 nos. 38-40), the frequent usage of moderatio (and the cognate verb moderor) in the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre (Eck et al. 1996), and a plausible restoration of moderatio in a lacuna in the Tabula Siarensis (by Hinz 1993; see also Lott 2012: 214). I demonstrate that the valences that cluster around the Tacitean Tiberius (refusing excessive honors, exercising clemency, and refusing to exert undue influence) correspond closely with the valences attested in the Tiberian documentary record; this correspondence suggests that the narrowing of the semantic range of the virtue in Tacitus’ portrayal of Tiberius is not coincidental but conditioned by the usages in genuine Tiberian documents. Many scholars have discussed moderatio as a prominent component of the Tiberian program of imperial virtues (e.g. Sutherland 1938; Rogers 1943: 60-88; Levick 1975: 123, 1976: 89; Cooley 1998; Cowan 2009: 480) and have analyzed the role of moderatio within Tacitean historiography (e.g. Goodyear 1973 ad Ann.1.8.5; Vielberg 1987: 134-150; Woodman and Martin 1996 ad Ann.3.50.2; Classen 1988; Christes 1993; Balmaceda 2017: 157-241). The existing scholarship frequently notes correspondences in the language of moderatio between the documentary record and Tacitus’ portrayal of Tiberius, and it demonstrates that distinct valences of moderatio cluster around different individuals in Tacitean historiography (such as Agricola, Tiberius, and Vespasian); it has not, however, related the clustering of valences around Tiberius to Syme’s and Miller’s theories of Tacitean historiographical technique via comparison with the documentary record. By using moderatio within the Tiberian documentary record and the Tacitean narrative as a case study for examining Tacitus’ historiographical technique, I conclude, in broad agreement with Syme and Miller, that the characterization of Tiberius is conditioned by the documentary record of the principate.

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Roman Historiography

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