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Tristis Umbra Germani: The Troubled Presence of Britannicus in the Octavia

Theodora Naqvi

University of Pennsylvania

In this paper, I explore the haunting presence of Britannicus in the Octavia, arguing that the theme of troubled fraternal relationships is consistently evoked in the text through recurrent references to Britannicus. I suggest that this emphasis on negative instantiations of brotherhood in the Octavia has significant Flavian resonances, as it positions Britannicus and Nero as a negative double to the positive iteration of brotherhood represented by Titus and Domitian, a consistent element in Flavian portrayals of the imperial dynasty (Stevenson, 2010).

Although the Octavia is post-Neronian, there is no consensus about its dating. Boyle (2008) and Ginsberg (2017), among others, have argued for a date during the reign of Vespasian, instead of an earlier Galban (Kragelund, 1982) or later Domitianic (Ferri, 2003) date. Several have argued, however, that Britannicus’ prominence in the Octavia carries political implications significant to the early Flavian period. Smith (2003, 428) notes the bond between Britannicus and Titus and its importance for pro-Claudian messaging in the text. Michel (2013, 760) suggests that by emphasizing Claudius and Britannicus, the play promotes linear hereditary succession and frames Titus and Vespasian as avengers of Britannicus. I emphasize Britannicus’ role as a brother, suggesting that the explicit and implicit manifestation of Britannicus in the Octavia is a constant reminder of his difficult and ambiguous relationship with Nero. The Flavian resonances of this theme are not contingent upon a Vespasianic date.

After exploring disordered sibling relationships in the play, including Octavia’s status as Nero’s sister and wife, the violent fraternal association between Nero and Britannicus (151-152; 790), culminating in Britannicus’ murder (66-69), and his appearance as a tristis umbra in Octavia’s dream (115-124), I’ll investigate how the use of ambiguous language complicates the relationship between Nero and Britannicus, who becomes a constant presence “haunting” Octavia and Nero. Bexley (2017, 14) notes the pattern of “doubling” that complicates the relationship between Nero and Britannicus in the play. I will suggest that this confusion between brothers represents an implicit threat to the idea of linear succession and straightforward roles that define the relationship between Titus and Domitian in other Flavian texts. At line 908, for example when Octavia sees the ship that carried Agrippina, she says: fratris cerno miseranda ratem. The postponement of ratem, the word that confirms that that frater is Nero, delays his identification. The author of the text thereby suggests momentarily that Britannicus is present, a reminder of his appearance in Octavia’s lamentations and dreams. Britannicus’ presence represents a risk to linear succession and delineation of imperial roles, a prominent element in representations of the Flavian dynasty (cf. Valerius Flaccus, 1.11-13).

The author of the Octavia deliberately introduces ambiguity between Britannicus and Nero in a way that frames them as a negative Julio-Claudian counterpart to Titus and Vespasian. This study will offer a reexamination of the symbolic value of the imperial family in the Octavia focusing on positive and negative portrayals of brotherhood. It will, moreover, contribute to broader discussions about the Flavian significance of the Octavia.

Session/Panel Title

Flavian Poetry

Session/Paper Number

76.4

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