It is a curious feature of the ordering of Tacitus' major historical works that the earlier-written Historiesdepict events subsequent to those in the later-written Annals,such that “literary time” and “historical time” run in opposite directions between the two texts. Where events orpeople are recalled from the past within the Histories and then are the subject of the Annals,Tacitus’ use of the resulting resonances in the latter work can be usefully understood within the framework of historical exemplarity, as analyzed by Chaplin (2000) and Roller (2004 and 2009). In this paper I argue that Tacitus uses one such echo, an altercation between Aulus Vitellius and Thrasea Paetus that Vitellius recalls in the Histories(II.91) and Tacitus dramatizes in the Annals (XIV.49), to play with preexisting and extra-textual moral and exemplary categories. Tacitus has constructed his Annals narrative of the dispute to match, irony for irony, Vitellius’s account and its somewhat ludicrous context, drawing into Vitellius'brief appearance in the Annals the moral inversion characteristic of his future rule.
In Histories II.91, Vitellius, now emperor, boasts of habitual disagreement with the Neronian Stoic Thrasea in the punchline, as it were, of a quarrel with Helvidius Priscus. The audience of senators can’t decide whether to smirk or to grudgingly approve: is Vitellius making an impudent comparison and trying to arrogate the memory of the heroic Thrasea to himself, or does his own wickedness only exalt Thrasea further? The real effectiveness of the episode, however, comes from the fact that Vitellius is sparring with Helvidius: Thrasea's spiritual and political heir and a noted provacateur of emperors. By comparing the episode with Tacitus' portrayal of Helvidius in Histories IV and with parallel accounts in Dio and Suetonius, I show that Tacitus shapes this anecdote to emphasize the construction of anideal Thrasea Paetus. While Helvidius' actions are consistently shown as conscious imitations of Thrasea, our sense of Thrasea in the Historiesis equally a product of the actions of his imitator. Tacitus’ presentation of the episode through the responses of onlookers further emphasizes the subjective contemporary construction of exempla. While they -- and the past more generally -- may appear to be “available in any given present” (Roller: 34), the meaning attached to any particular exemplum is in fact contingent on the context in which is recalled.
This contingency operates from the other side in the Annals, where Vitellius pops up as the lone voice of opposition to a rare senatorial consensus created by Thrasea during the trial of Antistius Sosianus (XIV.49) The events narrated there are a suspiciously apt set-up for the incident in the Histories: the collision of a “bad” emperor trying to stage a (good) reputation, a “good” senator who successfully derails that staging, and a passive senate who cheer from the sidelines (but not too loudly). Tacitus emphasizes Vitellius’ role as a Neronian minion out of proportion to his actual importance in the episode, although both Vitellius’ later historical importance and his family’s previous appearances in the Annals serve his prominent role here. The scene functions as an allusive introduction to him in much the same way as Histories II.91 served Helvidius. Moreover, Tacitus’ depiction of Thrasea in this episode, where his firmness of mind and interest in glory are stressed, is especially consonant with the idealized Thrasea of the Histories, as constructed by Helvidius’ imitation. Against this expected parallelism of Thrasea and Helvidius, however, Tacitus also suggests the interpretation that Vitellius advanced in Histories II.91: young Vitellius as the annoying and unproductive opposition, that is, as a proto-Helvidius. In light of the meanings that the Histories showed attaching to Thrasea qua virtuous exemplum, this inversion underlines Vitellius' 'equal and opposite' moral status but also, perhaps, calls into question the nature of the exemplum that Thrasea himself represents.
- Chaplin, Jane D. Livy’s Exemplary History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000.
- Roller, Matthew. “Exemplarity in Roman Culture: The Cases of Horatius Cocles and Cloelia.” Classical Philology 99 (2004): 1-56.
- ——. "The Exemplary Past in Roman Historiography and Culture." in The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians, ed. Andrew Feldherr. Cambridge 2009. 214-230.