Although Tacitus wrote his (surviving) works after the death of Domitian, he remains a historian of the Flavian era, for it is under Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian that Tacitus became Tacitus. It is only by accident that we do not possess what probably was the most significant–and personal–narrative of Tacitus’ output, that is, the reign of Domitian. Yet what survives of his Flavian narrative allows us more than just a glimpse on Tacitus’ “lost” narrative. An even more ephemeral protagonist is the emperor Titus, whose brief reign showed great promise, as recorded by virtually all historical sources, evidently in opposition to his younger brother, whose tyrannical behavior brought the dynasty to an end. In some way, Titus anticipates Tacitus’ characterization of Germanicus, whose promising beginnings were derailed by an envious Tiberius. How Tacitus would have characterized Titus can only be a matter of speculation. There are, however, some interesting references to him in the extant portion of the Histories (for Titus does not appear in the other extant works) that allow us to formulate some hypotheses.
Titus’ most significant appearances are at the opening of Book 2 (after a brief mention to his journey to support Galba’s election at 1.10.3), where the future success of the Flavian dynasty is foreseen through the character description of the young prince (2.1.1-3), quantaecumque fortunae capax. Tacitus chooses to focus on Titus’ visit to the temple of Venus at Paphos, thus emphasizing the religious scruples of the Flavian leader, whose high hopes were confirmed by the temple’s priest (2.4.2). It is Titus’ natural inclination that brings Vespasian and Mucianus together (2.5.2): Titus is, in Mucianus’ words, capax imperii (2.77.1), and he is clearly favored by Vespasian over his younger brother Domitian, whose adversa fama foreshadows his future reign (4.51.2). There follows Titus’ first (indirect) speech (4.52.1): a brief address to his father that emphasize the extraordinary wisdom and moderation of the future emperor, whose youthful “distractions”, especially his love-story with Berenice, Tacitus dismisses with but a few words (2.2.1), unlike Suetonius and Dio, who record more explicitly that the young Titus recalled a novel Nero.
Although Tacitus mentions Titus but a few times in the extant books of the Histories, each occurrence is carefully weighed to point out Titus’ positive qualities, which are increasingly contrasted with the subversive nature of his younger brother, whose deceitful nature is finally given full disclosure at the end of Book 4 (4.86.2 cuius [sc. Titi] disparem mitioremque naturam contra interpretabatur [sc. Domitianus]). After establishing Titus’ moral character, Tacitus portrays Titus in terms of an “ideal” general, with Agricola-like qualities that perfectly combine personal affability with military firmness (5.1.1).
In this paper, I shall argue that Tacitus construes the character of Titus as a complement to his younger brother Domitian, gradually building up the two characters with the typical, rhetorical qualities that Romans commonly associated with the ideal general, on the one side, and the tyrannical ruler, on the other.
Tacitus and the Incomplete