The imperial history in Tacitus’ Annals is populated with female characters who have received attention from modern scholars for their historical and political significance as well as their symbolic roles and moral exemplarity (e.g. Rutland 1978, Santoro L’Hoir 1994, Joshel 1995, Keegan 2004). However, Tacitus’ Histories lacks this strong female presence, which some have attributed to the fact that the surviving books treat the civil war that followed the collapse of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and that Tacitus’ attention to battles and legionary politics does not offer the same opportunity to develop female characters as the dynastic court intrigue of the Annals (Christ 1978, Marshall 1984-1985). Indeed, the very scarcity of references to women in Books 1-3 of Tacitus’ Histories invites scrutiny of the narrative, symbolic, or moral significance of the women who do appear (cf. Marshall 1984-1985). Three passages emphasize the presence of women in a striking way: Hist. 1.13, 2.2, and 2.63-64 are exceptional in Tacitus’ account of the civil war because in each passage he repeats a woman’s name within a few lines, stressing each woman’s active or symbolic significance in the military events that are unfolding. In this paper, I will explore the way that these repeated names lend meaning to each of these passages; I will argue that these three passages taken together form a pattern which reveals that Tacitus’ notion of the principate is inseparable from his notion of dynasty, and invites a reading of his history of the civil war as a series of violent, destructive succession narratives rather than a contest between individuals.
In Hist. 1.13, Otho’s position in Nero’s court is explained with an account of his marriage to Poppaea Sabina, later Nero’s wife; Berenice’s presence in Hist. 2.2 also serves to contextualize Titus’ (and Vespasian’s) imperial ambitions in early 69. Hist. 2.63-64 follows Vitellius’ victory over Otho and presents Vitellius’ family, which includes his wife, his mother, and his sister-in-law Triaria. In each of these passages, the women who are named reflect some aspect of the men with whom they are associated: Poppaea’s memory serves to identify Otho with Nero, grafting him on to the defunct Julio-Claudian family tree; Berenice, the Judaean princess, identifies the Flavians as political outsiders; and the politically active women of Vitellius’ family underscores Vitellius’ own lack of agency. In addition, these passages appear at significant points in the narrative of the civil war, as Otho, Vespasian, and Vitellius each make decisions that will lead to further conflict, implicating women in the year’s “destructive and shameless” violence (cf. Ash 2007, 7).
These episodes offer more than an exploration of the role of women in imperial politics or of each emperor’s personal qualities. Poppaea’s appearance in 1.13 anticipates Galba’s attempt to present a non-dynastic model of imperial succession with his adoption of Piso and his complaint, in 1.16, that the principate had made Rome unius familiae quasi hereditas. Otho’s Neronian identity recasts his rejection of Galba as a reassertion of the principle of dynastic continuity; the references to Berenice and Triaria signal its continued relevance – even when the family may change. Thus the emphasized role of women at these points in each emperor’s pursuit of power underscores the fact that the events of 69 CE transferred power from one potential dynasty to the next, and that the war itself was therefore the ultimate violent and destructive expression of the dynastic politics of imperial succession. Poppaea’s, Berenice’s, and Triaria’s repeated names situate each emperor within his own potential imperial family, reminding the reader that the imperial domus extends into the state even when the state is contested.